- Marler Clark, a Seattle-based food safety law firm, has petitioned the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service to ban 31 salmonella strains on meat and poultry. The 60-page citizen petition was submitted Jan. 19 on behalf of two individuals and one family sickened by salmonella, plus three nonprofit organizations active in food safety issues — Food & Water Watch, Consumer Federation of America and Consumer Reports.
- Managing partner Bill Marler told The Washington Post consumers are surprised to find out the federal government will stamp meat as being "USDA certified" when they know it could be contaminated with cow or chicken feces.
- KatieRose McCullough, director of scientific and regulatory affairs for the North American Meat Institute, told the newspaper salmonella is "impossible" to completely remove because it can be part of an animal's body. In a statement, the National Chicken Council told The Post meat needs to be cooked at high enough temperatures to kill bacteria, and that, "Raw chicken ... is not a sterile product, and no regulation will ever make it sterile."
This isn't Bill Marler's first food safety fight as he looks to replicate similar success when he worked to get the USDA to declare E. coli O157:H7 an adulterant in 1994. That move followed the 1993 Jack in the Box outbreak involving undercooked beef patties that sickened 732 people, hospitalized 171 and killed four. Marler represented hundreds of plaintiffs in that case in a class-action lawsuit.
In 2009, he asked the USDA to declare six of the most dangerous strains of E. coli as adulterants in ground beef. The agency did so in 2011 and, as a result, FSIS tests samples of raw beef for E. coli, and contaminated products cannot legally be sold and could be recalled.
This latest petition follows years of effort by consumer groups and others to have salmonella declared an adulterant on meat and poultry. According to a 2018 report from Thomas Gremillion, director of the Food Policy Institute, at least five salmonella-related outbreaks occurred that year linked to beef, chicken and turkey and collectively sickened 784 people, hospitalized 245 and killed three.
In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported seven foodborne illness outbreaks related to salmonella, with two linked to meat or poultry. One likely involved ground beef, which sickened 13 people from eight states, hospitalized nine and killed one, and another was associated with ground turkey, which sickened seven people from three states and hospitalized one.
The FSIS is well aware salmonella in food poses a major problem. In a 2016 update to its Salmonella Action Plan, the agency called the pathogen the "leading cause of bacterial foodborne illness" in the U.S., causing about 1.2 million illnesses annually. It noted a working group was established in 2012 to review data and come up with ideas to improve performance, with the initial target being salmonella.
Marler Clark is asking FSIS to grant an expedited review, writing in the petition that the firm's position is supported by scientific research showing it would decrease foodborne pathogens in meat if the ban was put in place.
For the meat and poultry industries, the situation is more complex. They say technology is not yet at a point where salmonella can reasonably be eradicated from their products, and having to test for 31 salmonella strains would be expensive and drive up retail costs to consumers.
Mark Dopp, senior vice president of the North American Meat Institute, told The Washington Post the industry is doing everything it can think of to solve the salmonella problem.
"Declaring something to be an adulterant isn’t going to make us swim faster or harder. We are swimming as fast and hard as we can," he said.
Should the petition be approved as submitted, USDA could recall products contaminated with any of the 31 salmonella serotypes cited. Federal inspectors could be removed from the processing facilities involved, which would shut them down until contamination problems are solved.
However, the FSIS could take the same position it did in 2014 when it denied a petition from the Center for Science in the Public Interest asking that four antibiotic-resistant salmonella strains be declared adulterants in raw ground meat and poultry. The agency said most foodborne pathogens are not considered adulterants in those products because ordinary cooking and preparation are generally sufficient to destroy them.
Continuing outbreaks involving salmonella could turn the tide this time, though, especially if consumers get involved and demand action.