News Feature | June 25, 2014

Superbug Outbreak Inspires A House Bill

Sam Lewis

By Sam Lewis

Superbug Outbreak

More than 600 cases of Salmonella-related illnesses are linked to Foster Farms over the last eight months. With such staggering numbers of illness, two members of Congress have introduced legislation requiring food recalls to be issued in such conditions.

Since last October, a Salmonella outbreak, that Foster Farms would love to put in its rearview mirror, has spread to 27 states and Puerto Rico with new cases still emerging. According to the CDC, all cases are linked to an antibiotic-resistant strain of Salmonella. A public health alert has been issued by the USDA and has also monitored changes inn Foster Farms’ production lines — the company has even added anti-bacterial units to its lines — but USDA officials say they lack authority to issue a recall. Foster Farms has not issued a voluntary recall, believing its chicken products are safe if handled and cooked properly.

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On Wed, June 25, Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said consumers need and deserve to be better protected. The duo believes the USDA’s officials have the power to order recalls, particularly when powerful pathogens are prompting outbreaks. DeLauro and Slaughter say a new law is needed to make this reality. “The USDA has failed to recall meat contaminated with antibiotic-resistant pathogens because they do not believe they have the legal authority to do so. This bill would ensure there is no confusion,” the duo says in a statement. “We need federal agencies that will protect public health, not bend to the threats of deep-pocketed food producers seeking to escape regulation.”

The bill, called the Pathogens Reduction and Testing Reform Act, would require the USDA to recall meat, poultry, and egg products that are causing illness death and are also resistant to two or more types of antibiotics that commonly treat human bacterial-related ailments. The USDA has yet to take a stance regarding this legislation.

Joining DeLauro and Slaughter were many food safety advocacy groups that have been urging the USDA to mark potent strains of Salmonella as adulterants. This would place a ban on items contaminated with them, forcing a recall. This approach is used by the USDA with raw beef, declaring six separate strains of antibiotic-resistant E. coli as adulterants.  Since the USDA began the bans 15 years ago, E. coli-related illnesses have dropped significantly. Salmonella-related illnesses have stayed uniform.

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The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) officials prepared statement says the agency “continues to closely monitor the salmonella Heidelberg outbreak as well as the three Foster Farms facilities which have been identified by CDC as a likely source.” It also says testing has been elevated at Foster Farms’ facilities, showing low levels of bacteria. This has led the agency to consider “whether illnesses are being caused by other sources.”