August 4, 2011

Salmonella Outbreak: USDA Gets It Half-Right

Keeve Nachman

Keeve Nachman

Program Director, Food Production and Public Health

Center for a Livable Future

The newest superbug in town is Salmonella Heidelberg, and the USDA has issued words of caution to U.S. consumers and instructions for proper meat handling—but it needs to press for reform in agricultural practices, as well.

The CDC has identified S. Heidelberg as “resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics,” and so far the outbreak, which is linked to ground turkey, has sickened 77 people in 26 states and killed one person in California. (The CDC has not specified the drugs to which this Salmonella strain is resistant.)

The emergence of the antibiotic-resistant strain prompted the USDA last Friday to issue a public health alert urging consumers to use caution when handling ground turkey, and to cook all poultry products to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. And today, meat processing firm Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation voluntarily recalled 36 million pounds of its ground turkey products. (For details on Cargill’s decision to suspend ground turkey production at its Arkansas facility, read yesterday’s New York Times and Mother Jones articles.)

While U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s public health alert is clearly needed, given the agency’s mandate to protect U.S. citizens from public health risks associated with agricultural practices, the substance of the message is lacking. Proper meat handling and preparation constitutes a consumer-side means of avoiding exposure to pathogenic bacteria.  These practices, however, will do little to address the problem at its root.

In order to effectively prevent the generation and propagation of pathogens with which people have contact when they handle and consume meat, Vilsack should press for reform in the food animal production sector. The industry-wide practice of routine, non-therapeutic administration of antibiotics  provides an ideal breeding ground for the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or “superbugs,” capable of causing infections in people that are very challenging and expensive to treat.

In industrial food animal production (IFAP), livestock often live in overcrowded and unsanitary environments that facilitate the spread of bacteria. To promote animal growth, the caretakers of IFAP operations routinely and prophylactically feed their livestock low levels of antibiotics. But the practices backfires, because bacteria consistently exposed to antibiotics develop drug resistance to the antibiotics.

Restrictions on the use of antibiotics in agriculture will go a long way in preventing infections by superbugs such as Salmonella Heidelberg, as well as many other bacteria. And the USDA has in the past acknowledged the connection between the misuse of antibiotics in food animal production and the development of antibiotic resistance. It should not be such a huge leap for Secretary Vilsack to press for reform in food animal production.


  1. Secretary Vilsack needs to make changes to the IFAP. The IFAP creates these problems by allowing animals to live in dirty, crowded environments. It is not only the consumers responsibility to prevent themselves from getting a food-borne illness, but also the people responsible for producing the products.

  2. Pingback: Court to FDA: The Science Actually Matters | Center for a Livable Future

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