By P.J. Huffstutter and Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - A consumer group on Wednesday accused the U.S. Department of Agriculture of putting the public's health at risk by allowing meat with antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella to be sold to consumers, according to a lawsuit filed against the agency.
The allegation came in a complaint filed by Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which is seeking to force the federal agency to address its demand that particularly virulent strains of salmonella be treated as food adulterants, so that tainted meat can be pulled from grocery shelves.
The complaint filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia marks the latest salvo by CSPI in a three-year-long battle to get the agency change its rules over four drug-resistant strains of salmonella. The change would allow contaminated products to be recalled before they could make consumers ill.
USDA officials declined to comment on the court filing Wednesday.
The government bans the sale of adulterated meat and poultry for human consumption, but allows the sale of meat products containing salmonella because the pathogen is not designated as an adulterant.
CSPI had petitioned USDA in May 2011 to stop such sales, saying that in 2011 alone at least 168 illnesses, 47 hospitalizations, and one death were caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
"USDA takes action only after people start becoming ill from these life-threatening antibiotic-resistant superbugs," said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal in a statement.
Lobbying groups regularly turn to the courts to try to force federal regulators to change policies or adjust regulatory positions when other advocacy efforts prove ineffective.
Public health officials have said salmonella sickened about 1 million Americans annually. Hundreds of people over the past year suffered illnesses linked to several strains of antibiotic-resistant salmonella tied to Foster Farms chicken products, according to data compiled by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And public health experts have become worried in recent years about the emergence of new strains of bacteria that cannot be controlled by a wide range of current antibiotics.
The federal Food and Drug Administration last year unveiled guidelines for drug makers and agricultural companies to voluntarily phase out antibiotic use as a growth enhancer in livestock. The agency said its guidelines were an effort to stem the surge in so-called "superbugs," amid mounting public health concerns that the use of antibiotics to promote growth in livestock was endangering human health.
The case is Center for Science in the Public Interest v. Vilsack et al, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia, No. 14-00895.