By XIMENA BUSTILLO - January, 22, 2021
With help from Helena Bottemiller Evich
THE COMING FIGHT OVER SALMONELLA: There hasn’t been a high-profile fight over food safety in Washington in a while, but that might be about to change. Consumer advocates are upping their pressure on USDA to declare certain strains of salmonella as adulterants, essentially rendering them illegal in meat and poultry. (By the way, salmonella is already very much illegal in the rest of the food supply.)
Declaring some types of illness-causing salmonella as adulterants is not a particularly new idea, but now that the Biden administration is in charge, consumer advocates are hoping it could actually get done. Plaintiffs attorney Bill Marler, who back in January 2020 petitioned USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to declare 31 strains of salmonella as adulterants, recently told the department that if officials don’t formally respond within 180 days, he’ll “proceed with judicial remedies.”
“To protect the public, FSIS needs to acknowledge that certain Salmonella serotypes pose an unacceptable risk to consumers and make rules to keep adulterated products contaminated by these serotypes off the shelves,” Marler wrote in a Nov. 11 letter to Sandra Eskin, deputy undersecretary for food safety.
Marler goes to Washington: Marler was in D.C. last week to meet with House Appropriations Chair (and longtime food safety hawk) Rosa DeLauro about the petition, and whether legislation might be needed. (The meeting was also filmed by a documentary crew for a forthcoming series on Netflix.)
“If you focus on human illness, if you focus on FSIS living up to its mandate of being a public health agency, it’s not a heavy lift,” Marler told MA while he was in town. “It’s just not.” He compared it to when USDA famously declared E. coli 0157:H7 an adulterant after the deadly Jack in the Box outbreak: “It’s the same thing.”
“The petition isn’t rocket science,” he added.
Media heat: Marler’s visit to D.C. comes on the heels of a scathing ProPublica investigation about multidrug-resistant Salmonella Infantis in poultry and our “baffling and largely toothless food safety system that is ill-equipped to protect consumers or rebuff industry influence.” (Salmonella Infantis is targeted in both petitions.)
A tale of two petitions: There are actually two major petitions seeking a crackdown on salmonella. In January 2020, Marler filed his petition on behalf of Rick Schiller, Steven Romes, the Porter Family, Food & Water Watch, Consumer Federation of America and Consumer Reports. That petition, which seeks to declare 31 strains of salmonella as adulterants, is also endorsed by Stop Foodborne Illness, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention.
In January 2021, CSPI and several other consumer groups sent USDA a more targeted petition asking the department to declare just a few salmonella strains that cause the most illnesses.
Some history: To get up to speed on all of this, it’s helpful to go back and read The Washington Post’s profile of Marler’s petition from right before the pandemic hit. Several years ago, Marler similarly petitioned USDA seeking more strains of E. coli to be declared adulterants — an effort that was ultimately successful after quite a bit of public shaming.
The industry position: Meat and poultry industry leaders argue that salmonella is fundamentally different than E. coli. It’s more common, for one, and it’s difficult to eliminate.
“With E. coli, it was a wake-up call for an industry that wasn’t paying attention to that pathogen. The industry is not asleep at the wheel with salmonella,” Mark Dopp, then-vice president of the North American Meat Institute, told The Washington Post back when Marler’s petition was first filed.
“We are doing everything we can think of,” said Dopp, now the Meat Institute’s chief operating officer and general counsel. “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.’’