Department of Agriculture.
Department of Agriculture. (Photo: Jason Bennitt/ALM.)

In a bid to force the U.S. Department of Agriculture to take action on antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella in ground meat and poultry, the Center for Science in the Public Interest sued the agency Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Three years ago, the nonprofit food safety watchdog filed a citizen’s petition with USDA asking the agency to declare four strains of salmonella that are resistant to antibiotics to be impermissible “adulterants” under the Federal Meat Inspection Act and Poultry Products Inspection Act. Doing so would prohibit the sale of meat tainted with these strains and give the agency greater authority to issue recalls.

From 2012 to 2014, two separate outbreaks linked to Foster Farms chicken parts that were contaminated with an antibiotic-resistant form of salmonella heidelberg sickened more than 650 people, according to the center. The suit also seeks to ban the newport, hadar and typhimurium strains from the food supply.

USDA has yet to take action on the petition despite the center’s request for expedited review. Secretary Thomas Vilsack wrote to the center last summer apologizing for the delay and said the agency is “currently considering the merits” of the petition. He added that USDA “must operate within the bounds of both case law and the statutes when fulfilling its food safety mission.”

There is precedent for banning a pathogen—in 1994 the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service declared E. coli 0157:H7 an adulterant after four children died from eating tainted hamburgers from Jack in the Box.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest in its suit sounds a similar note of urgency on antibiotic-resistant salmonella. “To protect public safety and prevent needless death and injury, CSPI seeks a declaration that defendants have acted unlawfully by withholding action on CSPI’s petition and an order requiring defendants to act thereon,” according to the complaint, filed by Julie Murray and Allison Zieve of Public Citizen Litigation Group.

The widespread use of antibiotics in food-producing animals, such as cattle and chickens, has contributed to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. When people are sickened by antibiotic-resistant salmonella, their illnesses tend to be more serious and prolonged, with a greater chance of hospitalization or death, according to the complaint.

Industry groups oppose the move to declare salmonella an adulterant, arguing that it is a naturally occurring microorganism that is inherent to chickens.

“Safe handling and fully cooking poultry to 165 degrees F (74 degrees C) is what fully eradicates Salmonella,” Michael Brown of the National Chicken Council wrote in a recent op-ed published in Food Safety News. “Given that Americans eat 160 million servings of chicken every day, the vast majority of consumers are cooking and handling chicken properly and having a safe experience.”

Contact Jenna Greene at jgreene@alm.com. On Twitter: @JGreenejenna.