Petition asks USDA to classify drug-resistant Salmonella as meat adulterant

May 26, 2011 (CIDRAP News) – A food safety watchdog group yesterday filed a regulatory petition asking the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to declare four antibiotic-resistant Salmonella strains as adulterants in ground meat and poultry.

Classifying the pathogens as adulterants would trigger testing for the four strains, allowing contaminated products to be recalled before they sicken consumers, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) said in a press release.

The four antibiotic-resistant Salmonella strains covered in the regulatory petition are Salmonella Heidelberg, Newport, Hadar, and Typhimurium, all of which have been traced to foodborne illness outbreaks.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, CSPI food safety director, said in the press release, "The research shows that antibiotic-resistant Salmonella in ground meat and poultry is a hazard, and it's time to move to a more preventive system of controlling the risks at the plant and on the farm."

Earlier this year Salmonella Hadar contamination in turkey burgers sickened at least 12 people in 10 states, according to the latest update on the outbreak from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2009 an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Newport linked to Cargill beef sickened at least 40 people in four states, the CSPI, based in Washington, DC, said.

In its petition, the CSPI said the USDA in 1994 declared Escherichia coli O157:H7 an adulterant through interpretive rules, instead of rulemaking, to protect the public, and it can use the same process to protect consumers against antibiotic-resistant Salmonella. The group also said scientific and medical research show that the public health risk of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella strains are comparable to those posed by E coli O157:H7.

A spokeswoman from the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), speaking on background, told CIDRAP News today that once the agency receives a regulatory petition, it evaluates the actions requested to determine of it should grant or deny the petition. She said interested parties can submit comments on petitions and that it considers those and supporting information submitted with the petition when making its decision.

After the FSIS completes its review, it notifies the petitioner of its decision in writing. She said the agency places the petition and any comments it receives related to the request in the FSIS docket room and the FSIS Web site for the public to view.

Stephen A. Lerner, MD, an infectious disease expert at Wayne State University in Detroit, said in the press release that reducing human exposure to drug-resistant Salmonella is crucial. "Our critically important antibiotics are losing effectiveness, and they aren't being replaced by new ones. We must do all that we can to reduce antibiotic-resistant infections from food," he said.

The CSPI said resistant strains can arise from farming-related overuse of antibiotics, which the groups says are often used to promote growth and prevent animal diseases due to overcrowding, poor hygiene, and other problems.

Nontherapeutic antibiotic use in feed
In a related development, the CSPI was part of a group yesterday that filed a lawsuit to press the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to withdraw its approval for most nontherapeutic uses of two types of antibiotics—penicillin and tetracyclines—in animal feed.

The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental advocacy group based in New York City, a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a press release yesterday that it and other groups filed the lawsuit to pressure the FDA to follow its own safety findings and respond to two petitions asking them to withdraw their approval of nontherapeutic antibiotic uses in animal feed. The NRDC said the petitions have languished for 6 and 12 years, respectively.

Peter Lehner, the NRDC's executive director, said in the statement that growing evidence suggests that antibiotics are becoming less effective at a time when retail meat products are increasingly becoming contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. "The FDA needs to put the American people first by ensuring that antibiotics continue to serve their primary purpose—saving human lives by combating disease," he said.

See also:

May 25 CSPI press release

CSPI regulatory petition

Apr 4 CDC Salmonella outbreak update

May 25 NRDC press release

NRDC lawsuit

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