Bloomberg News

Salmonella Outbreak Spurs Call to Expand List of Banned Bacteria

February 08, 2012

Feb. 7 (Bloomberg) -- A public health group is pressing the Obama administration to ban sales of uncooked meat containing drug-resistant salmonella after an outbreak sickened 20 people in seven states.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture now allows sales of unprocessed food with the bacterium because it’s usually killed in cooking. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington nonprofit, says consumers who may not cook meat properly can’t be responsible for maintaining food safety, noting foodborne outbreaks involving “superbugs” resistant to antibiotics sickened 19,897 and killed 26 between 1973 and 2009.

The center is petitioning the USDA to ban four strains of salmonella, including one type found in ground beef sold by the Hannaford Bros. Co. supermarket chain that were recalled in December after sickening people in the U.S. northeast. Drug- resistant and normal salmonella causes about 1 million illnesses a year in U.S. at a cost of about $365 million, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

“We want to think of microbial resistance in food as an emerging issue, but it’s here now,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the consumer group, in an interview. Her group first petitioned the agency last May.

A spokesman for the agency, Neil Gaffney, declined to comment on the petition in an e-mail. Efforts to prevent salmonella contamination -- including drug-resistant strains -- are being strengthened by encouraging food processors to increase testing, he said.

E. Coli Ban

The government now bans a single pathogen in unprocessed meat: a strain of E. coli called O157:H7 that triggered a 1994 outbreak involving Jack in the Box hamburgers that killed four children and sickened another 700 people. Federal officials plan to add six more E. coli strains this year under a 2011 rule the American Meat Institute in Washington estimates will cost processors as much as $300 million annually. E coli is so toxic that even a few microbes that get on meat during processing can make people violently ill, the government said.

Several outbreaks from superbugs occurred last year. Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc. in August recalled nearly 36 million pounds of ground turkey in an outbreak of multidrug salmonella that sickened 136 people in 34 states, according to the CDC.

Hormel Foods Co.’s Jennie-O-Turkey Store in Willmar, Minnesota on April 1 recalled nearly 55,000 pounds of raw turkey traced to drug-resistant salmonella that infected 12 people in 10 states, according to the CDC.

The U.S has been unable to identify ground beef suppliers that may be subject to recall after examining Hannaford’s “limited” records, according to the USDA. Seven of the 20 victims were hospitalized. The supermarket recalled products on Dec. 15.

“We’re cooperating fully with government officials,” said Eric Blom, a Hannaford spokesman, in an interview. “We’ve worked closely with investigators on this matter.”

Kidney Damage

Brian DiGeorgio went into a coma that affected his kidneys after eating ground beef purchased from Hannaford, Donald Boyajian, an Albany, New York lawyer representing him in a Dec. 21 lawsuit against Hannaford, said in an interview. He sued the company seeking more than $75,000 in federal district court in Syracuse, New York.

Hannaford declined to comment on the lawsuit or the USDA’s assessment of its record-keeping, said Hannaford’s Blom.

“The time to address this problem is long overdue,” Susan Vaughn Grooters, director of research and education at Chicago- based STOP Foodborne Illness, an advocacy group, said in an e- mail. “How many more cases are needed before someone in our government shows some leadership and acts to protect us?”

Mutating To Survive

Drug resistance linked to inappropriate antibiotic use is a growing concern in public health circles. Since drug-resistant pathogens are constantly emerging, doctors often switch medicines to thwart resistance as new treatments become available.

Antibiotics are given to livestock to encourage growth or cure or prevent illnesses. The drugs kill bacteria or thwart their ability to reproduce.

In a battle to survive, bacteria can mutate in ways that make them resistant to a drug and can then pass those traits to offspring or to other microbes. The pattern can create a pathogen with multiple immunities that takes more time and medicine to put down, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

A lawsuit filed by public-health groups against the FDA last May seeks restrictions on penicillin and most tetracyclines fed to animals that aren’t sick.

‘Free-Range Society’

“Everyone out there wants to live in this free-range society, but the cost of everything will go up and increase the final cost to consumers,” said Jay Wenther, executive director of the Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania-based American Association of Meat Processors, North America’s largest meat trade organization, in an interview. “There’s this perception that animals are being overmedicated. It’s sensationalism.”

Federal regulation of food is largely split between the USDA overseeing meat and the FDA responsible for fruit, vegetables and seafood.

The FDA is developing final guidelines on limiting the use of newer drugs in animals to prevent resistance, said Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods at the FDA, in an interview. Rescinding approval for drugs used in livestock is a laborious process, he said. Voluntary guidelines will lead to faster results and will be more effective, he said.

Limiting Antibiotics

A May lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council in federal district court in New York sought to limit certain antibiotics in the food of animals that aren’t ill, known as subtherapeutic use.

Experience shows that a voluntary approach doesn’t work for reducing antibiotic use in livestock, Avinash Kar, a lawyer with the Council, said in an interview.

“The FDA is expecting the industry to solve the problem,” he said. “Why would they suddenly stop out of the goodness of their hearts?”

Producers are voluntarily curtailing the use of drugs linked to antibiotic resistance, Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian for the National Pork Producers Council, which represents 43 state associations, said in an interview. Steps include heating barns and improving ventilation to reduce illnesses or need for medications, she said.

“The industry has had ongoing awareness of antibiotic use and responsible use,” said Wagstrom. “They say they are using less antibiotics than they used to.”

--Editors: Adriel Bettelheim, Reg Gale

-0- Feb/08/2012 18:37 GMT

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Armour in Washington at sarmour@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Adriel Bettelheim at abettelheim@bloomberg.net


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