In May 2018, a rare and virulent strain of Salmonella caught the attention of America’s top disease detectives. In less than two months, the bacteria had sickened more than a dozen people, nearly all of them on the East Coast. Many said they’d eaten chicken, and federal food safety inspectors found the strain in chicken breasts, sausages and wings during routine sampling at poultry plants.
But what seemed like a straightforward outbreak soon took a mystifying turn. Cases surfaced as far away as Texas and Missouri. A 1-year-old boy from Illinois and a 105-year-old woman from West Virginia fell ill. There was a teenager who’d just returned from a service trip in the Dominican Republic and a woman who’d traveled to Nicaragua. But there were also people who hadn’t traveled at all.
Victims were landing in the hospital with roiling stomach pains, uncontrollable diarrhea and violent bouts of vomiting. The source of the infections seemed to be everywhere.
Even more alarming was that this strain of Salmonella, known as multidrug-resistant infantis, was invincible against nearly all the drugs that doctors routinely use to fight severe food poisoning.
With a public health threat unfolding across the country, you might have expected federal regulators to act swiftly and decisively to warn the public, recall the contaminated poultry and compel changes at chicken plants. Or that federal investigators would pursue the root cause of the outbreak wherever the evidence led.
None of that happened.
Instead, the team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention closed the outbreak investigation nine months later even though people were continuing to get sick. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees meat and poultry, was not only powerless to act but said nothing to consumers about the growing threat. So supermarkets and restaurants continued selling chicken tainted with drug-resistant infantis.
And they continue to do so today.
An eight-month ProPublica investigation into this once rare, but now pervasive form of Salmonella found that its unchecked spread through the U.S. food supply was all but inevitable, the byproduct of a baffling and largely toothless food safety system that is ill-equipped to protect consumers or rebuff industry influence.
Several European countries have dramatically reduced Salmonella in poultry by combating it on the farms where chickens are raised. But over the past 25 years, the U.S. has failed to bring down the incidence of Salmonella food poisoning — even as the rates for E. coli and other bacteria have fallen dramatically.
Consumers may get the impression that the meat and poultry they find at supermarkets is safe because it bears the USDA seal of approval. But the agency doesn’t prohibit companies from selling chicken contaminated with dangerous Salmonella like infantis. And even when people get sick, it has no power to order recalls.
Instead, the agency relies on standards it can’t enforce and that don’t target the types of salmonella most likely to make people sick. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, unlike its counterparts in some countries, has no authority to control salmonella on farms, where the bacteria often spreads. And even when there’s persistent evidence of contamination in a plant’s products, the USDA can’t use those findings to suspend operations. All the agency can do is conduct a general review of the plant, and that rarely leads to a shutdown.
“It’s a system that’s untenable,” said Sarah Sorscher, a consumer advocate at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
ProPublica, as part of its food safety investigation, has created an online database that lets consumers look up the salmonella records of the plants that processed their chicken and turkey.
Last week, after repeated interview requests from ProPublica and years of criticism from consumer groups, the USDA announced that it was rethinking its approach to Salmonella. The agency didn’t announce any concrete changes but said it would set up pilot projects and hold meetings in an effort to come up with a plan.
“Whether it should have been done sooner or could have been done sooner, the good news is we’re doing it,” said Sandra Eskin, the agency’s deputy undersecretary for food safety. “We’re going to really take a look at everything we could look at and, I hope, develop a different approach that winds up being more effective.”
Scientific advancements over the last decade have provided the USDA with tools to identify the most dangerous strains of salmonella. But the agency isn’t using those tools to prevent it from spreading in our food supply.
To piece together how food safety officials and the poultry industry allowed infantis to spread, ProPublica used the same genetic data available to the USDA and other agencies, analyzing seven years of infantis samples taken from food and patients and catalogued by the National Institutes of Health.
Through dozens of public records requests, ProPublica was then able to link the genetic information on those 8,000 samples to the foods that victims ate and the processing plants the chicken samples came from.
The analysis, along with hundreds of internal government records and interviews with nearly two dozen scientists, allowed us to uncover that the infantis outbreak never abated and has continued to run rampant through the chicken industry.
In fact, ProPublica found that more than twice a day this year, on average, USDA inspectors detected multidrug-resistant infantis in poultry that’s genetically similar to the outbreak strain. Each month, the CDC continues to receive dozens of reports of people getting sick from it.
“Many people are still becoming ill, and some of them gravely ill,” Robert Tauxe, director of the CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases, told ProPublica.
One internal CDC presentation noted that this single strain is “responsible for an estimated 11,000-17,000 illnesses per year.” But the CDC is limited in its ability to protect American consumers from foodborne illnesses. It has no power to order companies to take action or to provide information that would help it solve outbreaks.
And the CDC, despite noting that the strain was “widespread in the chicken industry,” took the spotlight off infantis when it closed its outbreak investigation in February 2019. Tauxe said the investigation ended because the agency had learned as much as it could. “That does not mean that the outbreak was over,” he said. “In fact, we think it may still be expanding.”
As the CDC has contended with infantis, the agency has held several private meetings with the chicken industry, which has publicly downplayed the threat of the strain and its ability to do something about it.
But since closing the investigation, neither federal health officials nor the USDA has said anything to consumers about what the CDC quietly regards as an “epidemic.”
Marva Lamping knew none of this in July 2019 when she took her longtime partner, Arthur Sutton, out to celebrate his 70th birthday at their favorite Mexican restaurant in Bend, Oregon. As Lamping tested her luck at the restaurant’s video slot machines, Sutton snacked on chips and salsa while waiting for a platter of chicken enchiladas.
That night, Sutton began vomiting repeatedly, his stomach aching so badly that he couldn’t lay down. By the next morning, the pain was unbearable, and Lamping rushed him to the emergency room.
At the hospital, doctors would discover that Sutton’s intestines were leaking. Again and again, surgeons opened his abdomen to repair the tears and cut out dead segments of his bowels.
Doctors had quickly identified the cause of Sutton’s ailments as Salmonella. But for reasons they couldn’t understand, his body was wasting away.
None of the antibiotics were working.
This story was originally published by ProPublica. ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.