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The following Guest Blog first appeared on Food Safety News (February 2, 2013), and is reproduced here with the kind permission of its author, Bill Marler.

Salmonella’s Not an Adulterant?

– by William D. Marler

Personally, as I said to the Los Angeles Times several months ago, “I think that anything that can poison or kill a person should be listed as an adulterant [in food].”

Ignoring Salmonella in meat makes little, if any, sense. Even after the Court’s twisted opinion in Supreme Beef v. USDA, where it found Salmonella “not an adulterant per se, meaning its presence does not require the USDA to refuse to stamp such meat ‘inspected and passed,” our government’s failure to confront the reality of Salmonella, especially antibiotic-resistant Salmonella, is inexcusable. The Wisconsin Supreme Court in Kriefall v Excel called it as it saw it:

The E. coli strain that killed Brianna and made the others sick is a “deleterious substance which may render [meat] injurious to health.” There is no dispute about this. Thus, under the first part of 21 U.S.C. § 601(m)(1), meat that either “bears or contains” E. coli O157:H7 (the “deleterious substance”) is “adulterated.” That E. coli O157:H7 contamination can be rendered non-“injurious to health” by cooking thoroughly, as discussed below, does not negate this; Congress used the phrase “may render,” not “in every circumstance renders.” Moreover, if the E. coli bacteria is not considered to be “an added substance,” because it comes from some of the animals themselves and is not either applied or supplied during the slaughtering process (although we do not decide this), it cannot be said that the E. coli strain “does not ordinarily render [the meat on or in which it appears] injurious to health.” Accordingly, meat contaminated by E. coli O157:H7 is also “adulterated” under the second part of § 601(m)(1).

Now, why would Salmonella be different?

According to the CDC, it is estimated that 1.4 million cases of salmonellosis occur each year in the U.S. Of those cases, 95 percent are related to foodborne causes. Approximately 220 of each 1000 cases result in hospitalization, and 8 of every 1000 cases result in death. About 500 to 1,000 deaths – 31 percent of all food-related deaths – are caused by Salmonella infections each year.

So, where do we stand with the existing USDA/FSIS law on adulteration? Here is the law:

21 U.S.C. § 601(m)(4) – SUBCHAPTER I – INSPECTION REQUIREMENTS; ADULTERATION AND MISBRANDING – CHAPTER 12 – MEAT INSPECTION – TITLE 21—FOOD AND DRUGS

(m) The term “adulterated” shall apply to any carcass, part thereof, meat or meat food product under one or more of the following circumstances:

(1) if it bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health; but in case the substance is not an added substance, such article shall not be considered adulterated under this clause if the quantity of such substance in or on such article does not ordinarily render it injurious to health; …

(3) if it consists in whole or in part of any filthy, putrid, or decomposed substance or is for any other reason unsound, unhealthful, unwholesome, or otherwise unfit for human food;

(4) if it has been prepared, packed, or held under insanitary conditions whereby it may have become contaminated with filth, or whereby it may have been rendered injurious to health; …

Hmmm. It is hard to read the above and not think that the words in bold equate to all E. coli and Salmonella (frankly, all pathogens in food). I know, I am just a lawyer, but don’t ya think that when food with animal feces (and a dash of E. coli O157:H7) in it is considered an adulterant, that other animal feces (with dashes of other pathogens, like Salmonella) in them, should be considered adulterated too? But, hey, that is just me.

Another odd governmental fact is that the FDA does not seem to make a distinction between pathogens it considers adulterants or not. FDA’s enabling legislation – Sec. 402. [21 USC §342] of the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act also defines “Adulterated Food” as food that is:

(a) Poisonous, insanitary, or deleterious ingredients.

(1) If it bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health; but in case the substance is not an added substance such food shall not be considered adulterated under this clause if the quantity of such substance in such food does not ordinarily render it injurious to health;

(2) If it bears or contains any added poisonous or added deleterious substance … that is unsafe within the meaning of section 406;

(3) if it consists in whole or in part of any filthy, putrid, or decomposed substance, or if it is otherwise unfit for food;

(4) if it has been prepared, packed, or held under insanitary conditions whereby it may have become contaminated with filth, or whereby it may have been rendered injurious to health …

It would be interesting, and perhaps entertaining, to have House and Senate hearings focusing on what should and should not be considered adulterants in our food. I can see panels of scientists from various fields, FDA, USDA and FSIS officials, beef and produce industry representatives and consumers discussing this. I would pay to watch it.

About the author: Bill Marler is a personal injury and products liability attorney, and an internationally known food safety advocate. He began litigating foodborne illness cases in 1993, when he represented Brianne Kiner, the most seriously injured survivor of the Jack in the Box E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. Bill is a graduate of the Seattle University School of Law, and the Law School’s “Lawyer in Residence.”