Lawsuit Seeks to End USDA Inaction on Antibiotic-resistant Bacteria

CSPI Seeks Court Order Directing Agency to Respond to 3-Year-Old Petition

May 28, 2014

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is failing to protect the public from dangerous antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella in ground meat and poultry, according to a lawsuit filed today in federal court in Washington. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, the nonprofit food safety watchdog group, is asking the court to require USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service to respond to a three-year-old regulatory petition in which CSPI urged the agency to treat antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella as adulterants in order to prevent the sale and distribution of tainted meat.

The four strains of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella named in CSPI's 2011 petition— Heidelberg, Newport, Hadar, and Typhimurium—have been implicated in dozens of outbreaks linked to ground turkey burgers, ground beef, and other products. In 2011 alone, at least 168 illnesses, 47 hospitalizations, and one death were caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

From 2012 to 2014, two separate outbreaks linked to tainted Foster Farms chicken parts contaminated with an antibiotic-resistant form of Salmonella Heidelberg sickened more than 650 people. The first outbreak prompted CSPI to urge USDA to monitor all meat and poultry parts and whole poultry, as well as ground meat and poultry, for the resistant strains. In both of the outbreaks, Foster Farms declined to issue a voluntary recall.

In July 2013, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack apologized to CSPI for the delayed response to the group's petition, indicating that the agency's review was continuing. Ten months later, USDA still has not acted to control the dangerous Salmonella strains, even though the agency's own regulations require FSIS to take expedited action on petitions intended to enhance public health by removing pathogens from meat and poultry.

"USDA takes action only after people start becoming ill from these life-threatening antibiotic-resistant superbugs," said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. "It is time for USDA to declare these dangerous resistant strains as adulterants and then require industry to conduct aggressive testing to keep meat and poultry contaminated with these strains out of the food supply, as it does with products contaminated with dangerous strains of E. coli."

Antibiotic-resistance is an inevitable outcome of the overuse of important drugs whether in medicine or in animal agriculture. While antibiotics are sometimes used on farms to treat sick animals, the much more common uses are for non-therapeutic purposes—such as promoting faster animal growth. Antibiotics are also used to compensate for unsanitary and crowded conditions on factory farms. Last week a global coalition of organizations from six continents called on the World Health Organization to adopt a resolution to discourage the escalating crisis of antibiotic-resistance worldwide, warning of a "post-antibiotic era" with disastrous public health implications.

CSPI v. Vilsack was filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. CSPI is represented by counsel Julie Murray and Allison Zieve, lawyers with the litigation arm of Public Citizen.

In 2011, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Public Citizen, CSPI, and other organizations successfully sued the Food and Drug Administration for not responding to citizen petitions asking the agency to revoke its approval of the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animal production. The FDA is appealing the decision.


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