If you have ever woken up in the middle of the night panicked that you won't make it to the bathroom in time, or heard a scream from your child and sat with them shaking over a garbage can for hours on end, you know how brutal food poisoning can be. It is not something you want anyone, even your worst enemy, to ever to have to go through. Avoid it at all costs. Which makes it doubly maddening that the United States Department of Agriculture has been so irresponsibly slow in identifying the latest deadly antibiotic-resistant Salmonella outbreak, one that was first identified in MARCH. So far the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that the nasty Salmonella Heidelberg strain has killed one person and infected nearly 80. Those are just the ones we know about. Who knows how many people or children it has really sickened?
It is also maddening that our so-called "food safety system" is designed to protect giant food corporations more than individuals. Consider this scenario: That package of ground turkey sitting in your freezer right now could be tainted with the potentially deadly Salmonella Heidelberg bacteria. Imagine for a moment that you served your family a turkey burger tomorrow tonight and that your youngest child becomes violently ill -- the poisoning is so severe that she ends up in the hospital needing antibiotics. The physician comes in -- you're praying for an end to this torture for your child -- and the doctor says the antibiotics aren't working. The Salmonella Heidelberg bacteria raging through your child's body are resistant to not one but several antibiotics -- ampicillin, tetracycline and streptomycin- why?
Perhaps it has something to do with the massive amounts of antibiotics used on factory farms every day. Food Animals use up about 29 million pounds of antibiotics a year, compared to the 7 million used in people. The overuse and misuse of antibiotics on factory farms can lead to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria, such as Salmonella Heidelberg. You might recall last May when I asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack: "When will the government do something to stop producers from squandering 70% of our antibiotics on healthy farm animals?" And he answered with the question, "How do you basically legislate that?"
Well, Mr. Secretary, one thing you can do immediately is to demand that the Department of Agriculture stop turning a blind-eye to Salmonella contamination in our meat supply. When it comes to routine Salmonella testing in ground turkey meat, according to the Consumers Union, current USDA standards allow 49.9 percent of samples in a test run to be positive for Salmonella -- 44.6 percent for ground chicken. Are you kidding me?
I was astounded to learn that inspectors will not immediately issue a recall if they find resistant-Salmonella bacteria in ground turkey. The USDA and CDC admitted that 4 routine samples of retail ground turkey tested positive for the resistant Salmonella Heidelberg strain between March and June, but they waited until late July to find "proof" that it would make people sick. And it still took nearly a week before Cargill recalled the 36 million pounds of turkey meat, sold under several brands in 26 states. Tough time recalling a product already eaten!! It's not an automobile!
What is going on? I thought the goal of "food safety agencies" was to do something before people get sick. Waiting until dozens of people are sent to the hospital and one to the morgue is unacceptable!
Why would you wait if you have a good idea that the meat poses serious health risks? To save companies like Cargill time and money? What about the pain and suffering of the family members who lost a loved one, or the parents of 1-year-old Ruby Lee? According to the Oregonian, little Ruby spent 7 days in the hospital in June after she was sickened by Salmonella-tainted ground turkey.
Before this recent outbreak, the Center for Science in the Public Interest demanded that the USDA ban the sale of any ground meat that contain 4 known resistant-Salmonella strains that have been linked to outbreaks in the past, including Salmonella Heidelberg. It sounds like a no-brainer to me. They already order immediate recalls for meat that contain the potentially deadly E. coli O157:H7.
Tightening food safety regulations is important. But it is equally important to ensure that the will and resources are there to enforce them. The government can not be afraid or hampered from enforcing the rules designed to protect our health and our children's health! We must empower food safety agencies to not fear the wrath of huge corporations that do not want to be bothered with regulations. Scares like this are proof positive these huge companies can not be trusted to regulate themselves.
So what can you do to help stop the madness? Tell your congressperson to vote to maintain and increase funding for all government agencies entrusted with protecting our food supply. You can also tell them to support the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, which would require producers from routinely using antibiotics that are important to human health in farm animals. And when you are at the grocery store, ask your grocer if your meat is "antibiotic free." If the answer is no, make a veggie stir fry for dinner instead.