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JBS Salmonella Beef Outbreak – What is the Cause?

Posted in Outbreaks & Recalls,Salmonella on October 28, 2018

You probably already know that there’s a massive Salmonella beef outbreak and recall that’s being handled by both the FDA and the USDA.  The recall concerns 6.5 million pounds of beef distributed by Arizona company JBS Tolleson. The beef in question is being recalled because it’s suspected that it may be contaminated with salmonella bacteria.

So far, the FDA and USDA are mum as to potential causes of the outbreak. The New Food Economy, however, has a theory about what happened: the salmonella originated from sick dairy cows.

Dairy cows? You’d have good reason to be skeptical. In this instance, after all, the salmonella isn’t suspected of spreading through milk, or cheese, or any other dairy product; it’s from ground beef. Generally, dairy cows are raised for their milk, not for their meat. So how does the New Food Economy figure that they’re responsible for this outbreak?

We’ll get to that question. First, it might be relevant to review some of the facts at hand. The specific type of salmonella implicated in this case is Salmonella Newport. 120 people have been infected and 33 have been hospitalized so far. People have fallen ill in Hawaii, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Washington. No deaths have been reported. Because the outbreak is still technically ongoing, these numbers may change as more patients become ill or are discovered to have fallen ill with Salmonella that bears the same genetic fingerprint as the outbreak bacteria.

The FSIS became aware of the outbreak of Salmonella Newport on September 5th. Working with the CDC, they set about the business of determining the original source of the outbreak. Of the victims who were available to interview, more than 90% reported having consumed raw beef in the window of time leading up to the outbreak. Several of the victims, according to the CDC, had eaten raw beef at the same locations or purchased it from the same grocery stores.

On September 19th, the FSIS was able to get their hands on a grocery receipt providing proof of purchase of ground beef. That allowed them to begin the work of tracing the suspected beef products back to a point of common origin. In this case, the evidence led back to a company called JBS Tolleson based in Arizona. JBS Tolleson is a local branch of JBS USA, which itself is a subsidiary of the Brazilian corporation JBS. JBS is the largest provider of beef and pork in the world.

Now, all that being said, let’s return to the question posed above: why dairy cows? You might think that cows for beef and cows for milk are as distinct as a broiler hen is from a layer. That’s not quite correct, however. At the end of their useful lifetimes as milk-producing machines, dairy cows are often sent of to be slaughtered. And sick cows are more likely to be slaughtered than healthy ones. So if a cow contracts a pathogen somewhere in the massive feedlots of Tolleson, Arizona, where the New Food Economy reports that quite a lot of dairy products get produced, it’s probably going off to the slaughter.

What, then, do dairy cows typically get sick with? To quote The New Food Economy: “The smoking gun here is epidemiological: Salmonella enterica serotype Newport, the unusual strain of Salmonella implicated in this recall, has been highly linked to dairy cows in the past. In fact, since the mid-1980s, scientists have identified dairy cows as the primary reservoir of Salmonella Newport.”

That’s right; the specific kind of Salmonella seen in this outbreak is an affliction that traditionally befalls dairy cows. The article notes a particular cluster of cases from Los Angeles county in 1985; in those, the culprit was a strain of Salmonella Newport that was resistant to multiple different kinds of antibiotics. That was the main piece of literature that linked dairy cows to Salmonella Newport, but more examples continued to pile up in the intervening decades since.

The reason that dairy cows get Salmonella Newport, and the reason why they sometimes carry strains of the disease that are resistant to antibiotics (as was the case with the 1985 outbreak) has to do with the efficiency-obsessed and sometimes ugly world of factory farming. Farmers need to watch their bottom line, as we all do. Factory farms are particularly attuned to the costs and benefits of doing business, given the scale of their operations and the potentially large dividends that are on the line.

These pressure lead to all kinds of cost-cutting measures, many of which work out to be harmful to dairy cows. The conditions that they’re kept in, the feed that’s administered to them, and the way in which they’re hooked up to machines can all bring on or worsen a salmonella infection. Often, these infections don’t display symptoms, so it’s not clear that a cow is sick, or it isn’t clear why. Cows are fed antibiotics as a preventative measure to ward of transmission of microbes like salmonella, but the net effect isn’t so hot: some strains of salmonella survive and spread their genetic resistance to the antibiotics to their offspring or other animals.

If a cow dies while quietly carrying salmonella, those bacteria might not register with the safety checks that are in place at the plant where the animal is rendered. That’s one way that Salmonella Newport can end up in beef. We don’t know if that’s what happened here, but the logic laid out by The New Food Economy is compelling, and subsequent investigation from the FDA and USDA may well vindicate their theory.

Our Salmonella Lawyer is Here to Help You

If you believe you have developed a Salmonella infection from eating beef products, we want you to know that a Salmonella Lawyer at the Lange Law Firm, PLLC is currently investigating this matter and offering free legal consultations. Our lawyer, Jory Lange became a lawyer to help make our communities and families safer.

If you or a loved one have become ill with Salmonella, you can call 833.330.3663 for a free legal consultation or complete the form here.

by: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)