February 8

Salmonella outbreaks expose weaknesses of USDA oversight

Food-borne illnesses may become more severe in an age of antibiotic-resistant ‘superbugs.’

By Kimberly Kindy and Brady Dennis
The Washington Post

The Agriculture Department inspector showed up at Rick Schiller’s home last November to collect potential evidence from his freezer: three pounds of chicken thighs, wrapped in plastic and stamped with a Foster Farms label.

click image to enlarge

Noah Craten, center, of Glendale, Ariz., was hospitalized in October with an unshakable fever. An infection in his bloodstream caused abscesses on his brain. Tests showed he was infected with a strain of Salmonella Heidelberg.

The Washington Post/Courtesy of Amanda Craten

Schiller, a 51-year-old California advertising executive, had recently returned from a five-day stay in the hospital, prompted by severe vomiting, diarrhea and an infection that left his joints throbbing and his right leg purple and twice its normal size.

“I’ve been around the block. I’ve had some painful things,” he said. “But nothing like this.”

State lab tests run on Schiller had already confirmed the diagnosis: a salmonella infection linked to Foster Farms chicken, part of a widespread outbreak that has food-safety advocates and some public health officials warning about the potential for food-borne illnesses to become more and more severe in the age of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.”

A MILLION GET SICK ANNUALLY

Federal regulators and poultry companies are scrambling to find new ways to reduce salmonella contamination, which sickens a million Americans annually. And the Agriculture Department is planning to expand rules to limit salmonella on chicken parts, not just whole birds.

But food-safety groups say this doesn’t go far enough and the USDA should ban the most perilous salmonella strains from poultry altogether, just as it did with other dangerous bacterial strains in many beef products.

Poultry processors have resisted such an approach, arguing that it would be expensive and ultimately futile, because salmonella is so pervasive.

The salmonella strain that sent Schiller to the hospital – a type known as Heidelberg – has been linked to numerous outbreaks in recent years, including the one at Foster Farms, which officially has sickened 430 people in 23 states but likely has harmed many more. The pathogen has sent double the usual rate of victims to hospital emergency rooms, one reason the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called dozens of experts and investigators back to work during the government shutdown last fall to more closely track the outbreak. Some strains of Heidelberg also have proven resistant to several types of commonly prescribed antibiotics.

“This isn’t your grandmother’s salmonella,” said Sarah Klein, an attorney for Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit health watchdog group.

Noah Craten was 18 months old when he ended up in an Arizona children’s hospital last October after an unshakable fever that lasted nearly a month. Doctors eventually discovered that an infection in his bloodstream had caused abscesses on the boy’s brain. Surgeons had to slice open his scalp and cut open a piece of his skull to remove them.

After three weeks in an isolated hospital room and countless doses of antibiotics, Noah returned home in early November. Tests run by state health officials showed he had been infected with a Heidelberg strain, linked to the Foster Farms outbreak.

Cases similar to Noah’s prompted the CSPI to file a petition with the USDA in 2011, outlining legal arguments for why it believes certain strains of salmonella should be banned because they present acute health risks, especially to the very old and very young.

The petition points to the USDA’s own efforts with dangerous, drug-resistant E. coli strains, beginning with its ban a decade ago of E. coli 0157:H7.

The agency declared a zero-tolerance policy for the strain in many beef products after hundreds of Americans fell ill and four children died in 1993 after eating tainted hamburger meat from fast-food chain Jack in the Box.

As researchers eventually identified other types of E. coli that were particularly virulent and resistant to antibiotics, those likewise got labeled “adulterants” by the USDA, meaning the agency considers them dangerous substances that should be banned from commerce. A ban gives the USDA legal authority to order recalls, something it does not have with salmonella.

(Continued on page 2)

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