The fall of 2013 was a stressful time for the Craten family, who live outside of Phoenix, Arizona. Before long, three family members were diagnosed with the same type of salmonella infection. Salmonella is a foodborne bacteria that can travel on poultry meat and, as they later discover, was sweeping the United States in a nationwide epidemic.
All they knew at the time was that their 18-month-old son, Noah, was the sickest in the family: he had daily fever spikes, lost the ability to walk upright, and developed sagging legs. one side of his face. Through a CT scan, doctors discovered that the infection had formed a rapidly growing abscess in his brain. Emergency surgery saved his life, but the pressure of the mass left lasting damage, affecting his speech and sensory processing and leaving him with learning disabilities.
Noah Craten is 10 years old now, he is a brave boy who like to play Minecraft and has an assistant to help her through school. And her mother, Amanda, is an activist, a leader of a coalition of consumer groups it forced perhaps the biggest change in federal food safety regulations in 20 years. Last week, responding to pressure from these groups, the United States Department of Agriculture announced that it consider reforms how it regulates the processing and sale of raw poultry, the single largest source of salmonella infections. If the changes are passed, they will give this agency the power to monitor Salmonella contamination of live birds and slaughterhouses, and the power to force producers to remove contaminated meat from the market.
The agency doesn’t have those powers now, even though salmonella causes more severe illness than any other foodborne pathogen. It makes you sick 1.35 million people in the United States each year; about 26,500 of them end up in hospital and 420 die. At its mildest, it causes fever and diarrhea that can last up to a week. But because it can migrate into the bloodstream and invade bones, joints, and the nervous system, it often leaves victims with arthritis and circulatory problems.
Today, the USDA can only ask meat producers to voluntarily recall their products, and companies don’t always act as quickly as the agency would like. This makes consumers vulnerable to threats they don’t know exist. “Noah fell ill near the end of an outbreak that lasted 14 months,” says Amanda Craten. “If there had been some sort of forgetfulness and there had been a recall at the start, my son would not have gotten sick.”
The possible reforms were disclosed on October 14 by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. They are contained in what FSIS calls a “proposed framework,” the first steps in a process that may not be resolved until after the 2024 election. But if that process results in regulation, it will mark a permanent change in the US food safety authority.
“What’s exciting about this new proposal is that it will potentially apply to all raw chicken products, which play a huge role in the number of salmonellosis cases we’re seeing,” says attorney Sarah Sorscher. who is deputy director of regulation. business at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has petitioned the USDA four times to declare the most dangerous strains adulterants and regulate them. “If we can reduce the risk from these products, we actually have a chance to bend the curve of foodborne illness.”