U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., asked Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to reveal which beef processing plants are linked to a salmonella outbreak. In a letter last week, they said the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service identified the outbreak strain in six samples of raw beef, but regulations don't require remedial action to protect the public from products contaminated with the pathogen.
The congresswomen told Perdue reports from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed one death and eight hospitalizations resulted from ground beef contaminated with a virulent strain of salmonella. On Nov. 15, Central Valley Meat Co. of Hanford, California, recalled about 34,222 pounds of ground beef products sold under the Stater Bros. brand for possible salmonella contamination.
Gillibrand and DeLauro said they would like USDA to release data on collected samples so links could be identified between pathogenic strains found in FSIS-regulated establishments and patients with confirmed foodborne illness cases. "Those links provide actionable information for companies to reduce food safety risk," they wrote. The two also asked Perdue to respond to several questions by Dec. 13 regarding where samples were taken, how FSIS notified establishments, what the common source is, and, if it is not known, what FSIS is doing to find out.
Gillibrand and DeLauro are trying to get USDA to share information about which specific beef plants may have had contaminated product in their facilities, which the department doesn't typically reveal. If it did, they maintain, it would be easier for industry, consumers and public health officials to take action based on the information.
The agency doesn't release certain sampling information because of concerns about creating public confusion or causing public health authorities to follow up on misleading claims, the congresswomen noted. But, they added, they aren't convinced potential negative outcomes "would outweigh the benefits of giving industry relevant, accurate, and timely information about contamination in food processing facilities, and creating market-based incentives for better food safety control."
Time will tell whether Perdue responds to the congresswomen's letter. Meanwhile, pressure is building on federal regulators to provide more information to the public — and more quickly — about increasing foodborne illness outbreaks. This includes what the sources are and how contamination can be identified and tainted products destroyed before reaching the marketplace.
The USDA has been a bit more forthcoming in the recent past about sampling results and other procedures. The FSIS said last year it was posting the names of slaughterhouses that failed to meet salmonella performance standards for chicken parts after it had previously only posted results for whole chickens. And the USDA said last November it would change salmonella testing programs and follow-up sampling procedures.
Whether such information provides an accurate portrayal of food safety practices is another question. However, the consumer trend is toward more transparency rather than less, so no doubt the public wants to know more about these results and others when it comes to food safety oversight.
Salmonella infections were up last year compared to previous years, but the jump might be partly due to the wider use of quick diagnostic tests, according to the CDC. In the case of salmonella enteritidis — the most common salmonella serotype — the incidence rate hasn't dropped in more than 10 years.
The CDC estimates about 1.35 million people are sickened annually by salmonella in the U.S., and about 420 people die each year from the infection. Food is the source for about 1 million of those illnesses, 19,000 hospitalizations and 380 deaths, the CDC said.
The Consumer Federation of America has criticized the government for what it called a failure to adequately address high rates of salmonella infections. The group said enforcement should be increased, and the USDA should consider raw meat and poultry contaminated with the pathogen "adulterated."
Unless they're required to, USDA and the Food and Drug Administration are unlikely to voluntarily share more food safety information with the public or require more transparency from the companies they regulate. Yet doing so might lessen congressional pressure and enhance trust in their activities. It could also help industry better coordinate responses to contamination problems and take more effective steps to lessen their frequency.