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A recent Salmonella outbreak has raised concerns over the safety of ground beef sold with the approval of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). The outbreak has sickened 16 individuals in several states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York.

As of July 24, 2023, health officials have reported 16 cases of Salmonella Saintpaul infection, with illness onset dates ranging from April 27, 2023, to June 16, 2023. To identify the source of the outbreak, state and local public health officials are conducting interviews with those affected to determine their food consumption before falling ill.

Out of the 14 individuals interviewed, 9 (64%) reported consuming ground beef, and all of them purchased the product from various ShopRite locations in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. Seven of the affected individuals specifically recalled purchasing 80% lean ground beef products, while two others could not recall the specific type of ground beef they bought.

Health investigators are using the PulseNet system, managed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which utilizes DNA fingerprinting through whole genome sequencing (WGS) to identify related bacterial strains in foodborne illness cases. The WGS analysis showed that the bacteria found in the sick individuals' samples were closely related, indicating a potential common source of infection through contaminated food.

Curiously, the current USDA regulations do not classify Salmonella as an adulterant in meat, which means ground beef tainted with Salmonella can still be sold with the USDA stamp of approval. This regulatory gap has led to significant public health concerns as Salmonella is responsible for over 1.4 million illnesses each year in the United States, with an estimated 500 to 1,000 deaths, making up 31% of all food-related deaths annually.

The failure to classify Salmonella as an adulterant in meat, especially considering the presence of antibiotic-resistant strains, has drawn criticism from experts and advocates who argue that anything that can potentially harm or kill individuals should be treated as an adulterant in food.

The recent Salmonella outbreak highlights the urgent need for the USDA and FSIS to reevaluate their stance on this matter and take appropriate measures to protect public health. As the investigation into the outbreak continues, consumers are urged to be cautious and take necessary precautions when handling and consuming ground beef products.