Tainted Meat? Group Sues USDA Over Salmonella

Image: chicken on the barbecue
The consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest is suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture, saying the agency is risking public health by allowing the sale of meat and poultry with drug-resistant strains of salmonella. NBC Nightly News

A consumer group on Wednesday accused the U.S. Department of Agriculture of failing to protect consumers by allowing the sale of meat that contains drug-resistant strains of salmonella, according to a new lawsuit.

The group Center for Science in the Public Interest, or CSPI, filed the complaint in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, to try to force the USDA to treat antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella as adulterants, which would prevent the sale and distribution of tainted meat.

"USDA takes action only after people start becoming ill from these life-threatening antibiotic-resistant superbugs," said CSPI Food Safety Director Caroline Smith DeWaal in a statement. "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 dangerous strains of E. coli."

USDA officials said they couldn't comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit is CSPI's latest effort to get the USDA to respond to a 2011 petition, which names four strains of drug-resistant salmonella — Heidelberg, Newport, Hadar and Typhimurium. Those strains have been implicated in dozens of outbreaks and hundreds of illnesses, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Tuesday, the CDC reported 50 more illnesses in an outbreak of seven strains of drug-resistant salmonella tied to Foster Farms chicken parts. Since March 2013, 574 people have been sickened in the outbreak, including nearly 40 percent who've been hospitalized. Foster Farms has refused to issue a voluntary recall for the meat and the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service says it cannot force the firm to do so.

The government bans the sale of adulterated meat and poultry for human consumption, but allows certain levels of salmonella because the pathogen is not considered an adulterant. By contrast, E. coli O157:H7 and six types of non-Shiga toxin-producing E. coli are banned from the beef supply after being classified as adulterants.

Salmonella infections sicken more than 1 million people in the U.S. each year, the CDC says.