by Wendy Gordon
In what country is it legal for deadly salmonella to be in your food? Um, well, there may be others, but I am sure of only one—the United States.
Bad joke, right? No, deadly serious. “In strict legal terms,” Maryn McKenna, author of Superbug, explained on Wired.com, “there may have been no wrongdoing in the distribution via turkey of the drug-resistant strain that has killed one person and sickened 78—because salmonella, the organism in question, is not classified by the federal government as something that is illegal to distribute.”
“In food-safety regulation,” Mckenna explains, “there’s a concept called ‘adulterant,’ a substance that by law may not be distributed in food. When you hear the word, what springs to mind is probably Upton Sinclair–style additives such as sawdust and plaster. But foodborne disease organisms can be adulterants, too. The best known is undoubtedly E. coli O157, which was declared an adulterant in 1994, one year after the Jack-in-the-Box outbreak that killed 4 children and put 171 in the hospital.
“Salmonella, though, is not an adulterant. The federal government has never named it one, despite pleas from nonprofit organizations such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which in May filed a petition with the USDA that specifically asked for drug-resistant salmonella—the organism in this outbreak—to be declared an adulterant so that extra preventative steps could be authorized according to law. The USDA has not acted on the request.”
“We have constraints when it comes to salmonella,” Elisabeth Hagen, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) top food-safety official, noted in an interview. She said that unlike E. coli, salmonella isn’t officially considered a dangerous adulterant in meat unless that meat is directly tied to an illness or death.
Sadly, this explains why federal officials said they turned up the dangerous form of salmonella at a Cargill Inc. turkey plant last year, and then four times this year at stores selling the Cargill turkey, but didn’t move for a recall until an outbreak killed one person and sickened 77 others. The recent outbreak, by the way, has led to the recall of 36 million pounds of turkey, one of the largest meat recalls on record.
Adding insult to injury, the salmonella strain in the turkey meat has been found to be resistant to commonly used antibiotics, including ampicillin, streptomycin, and tetracycline. Antibiotic resistance makes infections—foodborne or otherwise—harder to treat, and can increase the risk of hospitalization and the risk that known treatments will fail, as a spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) pointed out.
“The headlines are both cautionary and frustrating” Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Avinash Kar has said. “Cautionary because it is a reminder of the risks of the widespread and indiscriminate use of antibiotics on healthy livestock animals in the United States, which comprises 70 percent of all antibiotic sales in the U.S. and is a major factor in the rise of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” that the CDC has identified as a major public health threat and one of its biggest concerns. “And frustrating because there is a lot that can and should be done to reduce the risks that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has known about for more than three decades, but has failed to follow through on. Routine, low-dose use of antibiotics on healthy animals creates a greater risk for the emergence of antibiotic resistance—essentially, what doesn’t kill the ‘bugs’ makes them stronger.”
Hog farmer Russ Kremer nearly died from a drug-resistant strep infection after being gored by one of his boars. Two months of multiple antibiotics did virtually nothing as the strep infection spread. Baffled doctors finally figured out the animal had been fed low doses of penicillin, spawning a strain of strep that was resistant to other antibiotics. That drug-resistant germ passed to Kremer.
“I truly figured it out after contracting the bacteria…. I realized that I was producing drug-resistant bacteria and putting it into our food system,” Kremer has stated. It nearly drove him to quit farming. Instead, Kremer made a commitment to implementing sustainable methods on his farm. He made the tough personal decision to exterminate his herd and start over—this time farming without the use of antibiotics, confinement, or other industrial methods.
Organic farming methods are proving to be effective at reducing the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. According to a new study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, poultry farmers who adopt organic practices and stop giving their birds antibiotics significantly reduce the resistance of bacteria to antibiotics in their flocks.
A similar study by the University of Georgia (UGA) showed that meat livestock raised without antibiotics actually contains less overall bacteria. The UGA researchers found that the chickens raised without antibiotics were less likely to carry salmonella bacteria in their bodies than chickens raised with antibiotics—5.8 percent versus 38.8 percent, respectively. Furthermore, while the chickens in the UGA study raised without antibiotics contained NO antibiotic-resistant salmonella, 39 percent of the bacteria carried by the conventionally produced chickens were resistant to six or more types of antibiotics.
Wary consumers need to start asking questions. They need to ask about the food they buy, where it’s from, how it’s grown. As I’ve reported before, major food companies, such as Applegate Farms and Chipotle, are sourcing their meat and poultry products only from farms that prohibit the feeding of subtherapeutic levels of antibiotics to livestock. Consumers need to support these companies by buying their products and eating at their restaurants. Shoppers need to demand of their supermarkets that they stock “antibiotic-free” brands and not jack up the prices for them.
Consumers also need to ask USDA why the agency hasn’t responded to the CSPI petition to declare drug-resistant salmonella an adulterant. And the agency should respond to the lawsuit that NRDC and its partners filed earlier this year, which specifically challenges FDA’s failure to follow through on its legal obligations to disallow the use of penicillin and most tetracyclines in animal feed. A key fact in this case is that it was 1977 when FDA found that the use of penicillin can lead to resistance to ampicillin, one of the antibiotics to which the salmonella strain carried by the recalled turkey is resistant. FDA also found then that the use of tetracylines was leading to emergence of bacteria resistant to this antibiotic.
Consumers need to ask why we must play a deadly game of roulette with our food choices. We need to make clear our right to a safe food supply. We must demand that Congress provide government adequate authority to prevent such outbreaks and to impose sufficient constraints on farm use of antibiotics. Check out Keep Antibiotics Working to learn more.