A Seattle law firm known for litigating foodborne illness cases has filed a petition with USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) on January 19, 2020 asking it to declare 31 different types of Salmonella as adulterants that would, in turn, be banned in pork, beef, and chicken.
Behind the filing is William Marler, managing partner of Marler Clark of Seattle, WA. Marler is perhaps best known for a similar case in the early 1990s, when he was instrumental in getting FSIS to ban E. coli 0157:H7, the strain responsible for sickening 732 people who ate contaminated food at Jack In the Box fast food restaurants in 1993.
For the current petition, Marler says, “We looked at which bugs caused the outbreaks and came up with 31 types of Salmonella that caused outbreaks and recalls. The 31 Salmonella types are: Salmonella Agona, Anatum, Berta, Blockely, Braenderup, Derby, Dublin, Enteritidis, Hadar, Heidelberg, I 4,,12:i:-, Infantis, Javiana, Litchfield, Mbandaka, Mississippi, Montevideo, Muenchen, Newport, Oranienburg, Panama, Poona, Reading, Saintpaul, Sandiego, Schwarzengrund, Senftenberg, Stanley, Thompson, Typhi, and Typhimurium.
CDC estimates that Salmonella bacteria cause approximately 1.35 million infections, 26,500 hospitalizations, and 420 deaths in the United States every year. Most of the illnesses are caused by contaminated food.
Marler says that if FSIS does not agree to ban the Salmonella strains, he will file a lawsuit.
FSIS has posted the petition for comment on its website. Comments are due by March 23, 2020. “FSIS will consider the public comments as part of the agency’s review of the petition,” an FSIS spokesperson says. The spokesperson added that FSIS will respond to the petition when it completes its review process.
Marler has asked FSIS for expedited review of the petition, and to make rules to stop the contamination. He said such petitions can result in less sickness and pointed to the Jack In the Box case. “From 1993 to 2003, 90 percent of our law firm’s revenue was from E. coli-related ground beef claims,” he says. Those have tapered off significantly, showing that declaring that strain of E. coli an adulterant helped keep unsafe beef off of supermarket shelves, he added.
He blames most of the problems with Salmonella to cross contamination on production lines and said consumers can’t be relied on to use meat thermometers to cook all meats correctly.
But, industry has pushed back, saying bacteria found on raw meat can be destroyed by handling it properly and cooking it to the proper internal temperature. “There is no one silver bullet that will totally eradicate Salmonella during the production process, which is why we oppose this petition,” says Ashley Peterson, PhD, senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the National Chicken Council in Washington D.C. “We agree with FSIS, and previous court rulings, that a science-based, multi-tiered approach aimed at reducing all Salmonella on raw meat and poultry products results in a more appropriate and effective use of agency resources compared to a separate and specific focus on specific individual strains.”
She said that, on average, Americans eat more than 150 million servings of chicken every day and nearly all of it is eaten safely. “But, we want 100 percent of them to be eaten safely,” she said.
Dr. Peterson adds that poultry companies have invested tens of millions of dollars in technology and other scientifically-validated measures to enhance the safety of chicken products. “Continuous inspection and testing by FSIS have demonstrated the long-term success of these interventions in providing a safe, wholesome, and affordable protein for consumers,” she said.
She says that the efforts are getting tangible results. Government testing shows levels of Salmonella on raw chicken are at all-time lows. According to FSIS, she said, 90 percent of the industry is meeting the recently-tightened USDA performance standard for Salmonella on whole broiler carcasses. And 88 percent of broiler establishments are meeting the FSIS performance standard for Salmonella on chicken parts, such as wings, breasts, and drumsticks.
She said proper handling and cooking of poultry by consumers can eliminate any risk of foodborne illness.
But Marler disagrees with putting the onus on consumers. “If a producer knowingly ships contaminated product it is adulterated,” he said. “I just don’t think that is right.”