A Mysterious Salmonella Outbreak Shows the Holes in Our Food Safety System

  • Share
  • Read Later

Stone / Getty Images

If a disease infected 1.4 million Americans and killed more than 400 of us every year, you’d think we’d hear about it pretty often. You might imagine there would be ribbons we could wear to show our solidarity against the disease, or maybe a nice benefit concertto raise money for a cure.

Yet the bacteria salmonella—which causes more foodborne illnesses than any other microbe—rarely makes the news, and usually then only briefly, even though the infections cost the U.S. more than $3 billion each year. So you probably aren’t aware that the U.S. is currently in the grip of a more than five month-long, multistate salmonella outbreak that has sickened at least 76 people and killed at least one person. Nor do you probably know that the federal government still isn’t sure exactly what is causing the outbreak or where it began—and there’s been no move yet to order a recall of the tainted food that is making Americans sick.

So far outbreak seems linked to ground turkey—the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said yesterday that cultures of ground turkey from four retail locations taken between March 7 and June 27 showed contamination with salmonella Heidelberg, a strain of the salmonella bacteria. Nearly half of the 51 sick people interviewed by the CDC reported that they’d recently eaten ground turkey, compared to 11% of healthy people surveyed at the same time. That was enough for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)—responsible for meat safety—to issue a public health alert reminding consumers to properly cook their ground turkey, which can reduce the risk of salmonella poisoning.

CDC Map of the Salmonella Heidelberg Infections

More from TIME: How to Stop the Superbugs

But the government says it hasn’t yet linked the outbreak to any one specific produce, even though three of those four samples have been traced back to the same establishment. Officials won’t reveal the name of the retailers or the manufacturers—so at this point, with the outbreak still ongoing, the only official action that’s been taken is to remind Americans to do something they should already be doing.

That lack of action—and especially, the government’s refusal to name the source of those positive meat samples—has critics like University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Art Caplan complaining:

You’ve got to protect the public health. That’s their first and primary value – not industry, not any other goal. They have to warn as quickly as they think there’s reasonable evidence for concern…. the moral duty is to really get the word out as soon as you have evidence of a problem.

More from TIME: Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food

In the government’s defense, investigating an outbreak of foodborne illnesses like salmonella can be incredibly difficult. Epidemiologists have to depend on victims accurately remembering where and what they ate before they get sick, and confirming a single case of contamination can take weeks. Ground meat can be particularly dangerous—a single package of ground beef or turkey can actually contain meat from different animals and different slaughterhouses, multiplying the chances for contamination and complicating any effort to trace tainted meat back to the original source.

Though most people infected by salmonella recover on their own, it can be a nasty disease, as this FSIS factsheet shows:

Although in some people salmonellosis could asymptomatic, most people experience diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever within 8 to 72 hours after the contaminated food was eaten. Additional symptoms may be chills, headache, nausea, and vomiting. Symptoms usually disappear within 4 to 7 days. Many people with salmonellosis recover without treatment and may never see a doctor. However, Salmonella infections can be life-threatening especially for infants and young children, pregnant women and their unborn babies, and older adults, who are at a higher risk for foodborne illness, as are people with weakened immune systems (such as those with HIV/AIDS, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, and transplant patients.)

More from TIME: 10 Pivotal Food Safety Scares

If anything, the latest salmonella crisis—like the far more devastating E. coli outbreak that struck Europe a few months ago—should remind us of the need for a much tougher food safety system. But we still have a long way to go. Though Congress passed the landmark Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA) late last year, a safer food system would require billions in additional spending—and in the current, um, constrained fiscal atmosphere, there appears to be little chance of that happening. In any case, FSMA only applied to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—not to the Department of Agriculture, which oversees meat production and safety. (The FDA gets just about everything else.) Unless we’re willing to spend that money—and put public health ahead of commercial interests—outbreaks like this one will remain a fact of American life.

More from Ecocentric: As Europe Reels From E. Coli, Food Safety Problems in the U.S.

Bryan Walsh is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.