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

(Continued from page 1)

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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

The result: Over time, deaths and infections from E. coli have decreased significantly.

“It worked,” said Seattle lawyer Bill Marler, who specializes in food poisoning cases and is representing Schiller. “Ninety-five percent of my cases used to be E. coli. Today it is nearly zero. The industry will kick and scream, but they can fix it.”

The chicken industry has long argued that it would not be realistic to expect processors to do away with salmonella on raw meat and that consumers must bear some responsibility in appropriately preparing it.

“Eliminating bacteria entirely is always the goal. But in reality, it’s simply not feasible,” said Tom Super, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council. “No legislation or regulation can keep bacteria from existing. ... The only way to ensure our food is safe 100 percent of the time is by following science-based procedures when raising/growing, processing, handling and cooking it.”

OVERUSE OF ANTIBIOTICS

Both salmonella and E. coli can be killed by cooking meat to the appropriate temperature, but the USDA has determined that the risks are too great to place that responsibility on the shoulders of consumers when it comes to the more dangerous E. coli strains.

CSPI and epidemiologists hope that by expanding this approach to select salmonella strains the industry will be provided with the incentive it needs to scale back on the overuse of antibiotics on the farm. Experts say this practice has contributed to the rise of superbugs, both in animals and in humans.

As George Washington University epidemiologist Lance Price explains it, as more and more antibiotics are used on chickens, some types of salmonella are better able than others at surviving the bacteria-killing treatments. “It’s like someone is shooting at the bacteria and some of them have put on bulletproof vests,” Price said. “The bacteria with the bulletproof vests are going to be the ones that survive.”

Some of those bulletproof bacteria are rendering numerous classes of antibiotics all but useless, and public health officials have warned of the long-term consequences.

“We don’t want to live in a world without our most effective antibiotics,” Price said. “There’s not an infinite number of ways to kill bacteria. This is not a game we can play indefinitely.”

 

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