In October, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued a public health alert to consumers warning that an outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg had been sickening consumers since March.
FSIS linked the illnesses to raw chicken products produced by Foster Farms at three facilities in California. The outbreak resulted in an unusually high hospitalization rate of 40%, likely due to the fact that several of the seven strains of Salmonella were antibiotic resistant, making treatment more difficult.
FSIS’ in-depth inspection of the Foster Farms facilities found a high rate of Salmonella positives (more than 24%), as well as evidence of fecal contamination on carcasses, insanitary conditions and direct product contamination. Despite the negative inspection reports, FSIS allowed Foster Farms to keep operating as long as the facilities implemented corrective actions. No recall was ever issued despite the fact that nearly 400 people were sickened and the epidemiology investigation found that 80% of the case patients interviewed reported consuming Foster Farms chicken.
The Foster Farms outbreak raises a number of questions, including questions about how FSIS is addressing Salmonella in general. The CDC estimates that more than 1 million cases of salmonellosis occur each year in the United States, with raw or undercooked poultry a frequent source of Salmonella illnesses. A report by the University of Florida ranked as fourth Salmonella in poultry in terms of causing the greatest foodborne disease burden to the public. Unfortunately, the United States has made almost no progress in reducing illnesses from Salmonella in the past decade—the incidence of Salmonella infections is nearly the same level it was in 2002.
In December FSIS released a Salmonella Action Plan, outlining how the agency would work to reduce Salmonella contamination on meat and poultry products. While the plan is a good step, it is lacking in specifics and does not take the strong, aggressive actions necessary to make substantial progress in reducing Salmonella. Worse, the Plan doubles down on the agency’s controversial poultry slaughter proposal, which has raised numerous food safety and worker safety concerns.
Efforts highlighted in the Action Plan to establish new standards for poultry parts and ground poultry are important, as is further research into Salmonella transmission and efforts to reduce Salmonella from poultry flocks on the farm. Yet the plan lacks a bold, dramatic set of actions that would shake up the poultry industry similar to when FSIS declared in 1994 that E. coli O157:H7 was illegal in ground beef and required all federally-inspected plants to implement HACCP plans.
So here are a couple of places to start: FSIS should grant a consumer group petition to declare certain antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella as adulterants, which are a particular threat to human health because they are resistant to many of the drugs normally used to fight infection. Such a designation would empower the agency to keep food contaminated with those strains out of the food supply. Second, FSIS should seek from Congress the explicit authority to enforce its performance standards and require a recall so that the agency can shut down a plant with high levels of Salmonella and filthy conditions and require a recall of product that is sickening hundreds of consumers across the country. Salmonella is a big public health problem and it requires big actions if we are to see a reduction in illnesses to better protect consumers.