Consumer concerns emerge with yet another food illness outbreak – National Consumers League

By Alex Schneider, NCL Public Policy Intern

Last Wednesday, at the request of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), food manufacturer Cargill announced a massive recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey due to possible contamination from Salmonella.  Already, a 65-year-old Northern Carolina woman died due to the outbreak, and 77 people have reported falling ill, with one-third ending up in the hospital.  The outbreak has highlighted two consumer concerns related to detection of Salmonella and the use of antibiotics in the food supply.

The need for new testing procedures for salmonella

As reported by CBS News, after the first illness was reported in March and the first signs of an outbreak appeared in May, investigators were able to determine a link between Cargill ground turkey and the outbreak in July.  Inevitably, consumers, industry observers and the media will question why the recall was announced five months after the first reported illness.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) sent a petition to the USDA in May that would have declared four strains of Salmonella to be ‘adulterants.’  The four are – Salmonella Newport, Salmonella Hadar, Salmonella Typhimurium and the strain present in the current outbreak, Salmonella Heidelberg –and  have all been the cause of serious food illness outbreaks.

Under this classification, testing before the product goes to market would be required to identify potential contaminants, as is currently required in testing meat for E. coli O157:H7.  The classification would also mean that selling products with these strains of Salmonella would be illegal, the goal being to stop contaminated meat from ever reaching the marketplace.

Concerns over livestock antibiotics

The second big concern is that Salmonella Heidelberg is resistant to several antibiotics, including ampicillin, streptomycin and tetracycline, as described in a report by NPR.  Today, farmers use 29 million pounds of antibiotics, or four times those prescribed to humans, to get animals to grow more efficiently before their entrance into the food market.

The side effect – antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria  – poses considerable risks, as evidenced by this most recent outbreak of Salmonella.  Although alternative antibiotics exist to treat people who do get sick, this problem has the potential to get worse.  As the Food and Drug Administration has stated, medically important antibiotics should be avoided in the food industry.

NCL strongly supports the CSPI petition calling for a “test and hold” program for the four strains of Salmonella before meats are shipped out to consumers and make people sick, or even worse, kill them. NCL also calls upon the FDA to prohibit the use of medically important antibiotics in animal feed because of the very problem we see with Salmonella Heidelberg,  it’s resistant to treatment by specific antibiotics.