Foster Farms chicken

Calls to tighten rules over salmonella have increased recently because of two outbreaks involving antibiotic resistant strains of the bacteria linked to Foster Farms poultry. More than 700 people have been sickened by the two outbreaks since 2012. (Justin Sullivan)

A Washington, D.C., health advocacy group sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture for not doing enough to prevent the spread of antibiotic resistant strains of salmonella in meat.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a lawsuit Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia asking the USDA to respond to a 3-year-old petition urging the agency to treat antibiotic resistant strains of salmonella as an adulterant.

Doing so could give the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service broader powers to issue recalls and prevent tainted meat from reaching the marketplace -- similar to how some strains of E. coli are handled.

“USDA takes action only after people start becoming ill from these life-threatening antibiotic-resistant superbugs,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.  “It is time for USDA to declare these dangerous resistant strains as adulterants and then require industry to conduct aggressive testing to keep meat and poultry contaminated with these strains out of the food supply, as it does with products contaminated with dangerous strains of E. coli.”

The USDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Calls to tighten rules over salmonella have increased recently because of two outbreaks involving antibiotic resistant strains of the bacteria linked to Foster Farms poultry. Over 700 people have been sickened by the two outbreaks since 2012.

Foster Farms did not issue a voluntary recall for either outbreak. Both the USDA and Foster Farms maintain the company’s poultry is safe to eat if cooked and handled properly.

Health groups say salmonella should be handled more strictly because of the rise of superbugs -- potent bacteria produced by the overuse of antibiotics on farms.

Officials representing the $70-billion poultry industry dispute that antibiotics are being abused. They also point out salmonella is widespread and cannot be completely eliminated. And despite that, producers such as Foster Farms have succeeded in significantly reducing rates of salmonella contamination in their poultry over the years. 

The USDA said last December it would develop more stringent testing and sampling for salmonella in chicken plants and implement the first-ever national standards for acceptable levels of salmonella contamination on cut chicken parts. Existing standards apply only to whole chickens.

That same month, the Food and Drug Administration moved to phase out many of the antibiotics administered to animals used as food to promote faster growth, a practice blamed for increasing antibiotics resistance in people.