The Fallacy of APHA vs Butz on the Salmonella situation

The Fallacy of APHA vs Butz on the Salmonella situation

by Sue Jones
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Frequently, APHA vs Butz (1974) is cited as a reason that Salmonella cannot be declared an adulterant. That decision was based in part on an unsubstantiated political opinion contrary to previous, contemporary, and following science. This column will discuss the history of the science.

In 1969, The National Academy of Science (NAS) Committee on Salmonella published “An Evaluation of the Salmonella Problem.” In 1970, the “Microbiological Subgroup of the USDA Food Safety Committee” reviewed the NAS report and agreed that consumers needed more training in handling food safely. The USDA scientists review was published in “A Review of the NAS-NRC Report. An Evaluation of the Salmonella Problem.”

There is a review of the NAS book by the Microbiological Subgroup of the USDA Food Safety Committee. It was composed of members from the USDA ARS and the USDA Consumer Marketing Service (Now FSIS). They concurred or agreed with 48 of the 49 NAS recommendations. The sole disagreement was regarding an advisory committee. The USDA objected that a “single agency be designated to coordinate training or act as a single authority.”

As a result of continuing cases of salmonellosis in the 1960s, the American Public Health Association (APHA) petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to apply warning labels to raw meat and poultry. The “labels containing handling and preparation instructions to protect the consumer against food poisoning caused by salmonella and other bacteria” were intended to reduce foodborne outbreaks. The meat and poultry industry objected to the labeling.

The USDA’s Under Secretary Butz, wrote a letter on Aug. 18, 1971, to the court averring, “The American consumer knows that raw meat and poultry are not sterile and, if handled improperly, perhaps could cause illness. In other words, American housewives and cooks normally are not ignorant or stupid and their methods of preparing and cooking food do not ordinarily result in salmonellosis.”

Given the scientific and epidemiological evidence in the previous decade, that objection to the warning label in APHA vs. Butz was unsubstantiated political dreck.

Emphasizing that cooking was the solution and ignoring the hazard of cross-contamination was already obsolete in 1971. Several papers in the preceding decade had noted cross-contamination of cooked food was significant:

Flippin and Harris (1960) “It is known that improper handling of food and lack of adequate refrigeration are contributing factors in most outbreaks of salmonellosis.”

Kampelmacher (1963) “In contrast to red meat, raw poultry is not consumed or prepared in any country. The danger lies in the processing, starting with the producers of poultry products and ending with the consumer. . . . In the kitchen infected poultry can lead to contamination of other food, especially if evisceration is done in the home. After heating, table poultry will not primarily cause infection, but it may form a vector of pathogens in the home, with all the consequences.”

Sandborn (1963) described two salmonellosis outbreaks from a Naval station where cross-contamination via cutting boards was implicated.

Woodburn (1964) wrote, “The presence of viable salmonellae on poultry is of concern to the homemaker as a potential source of contamination of foods and kitchen work surfaces. Since the meat is usually cooked to the well-done stage, the consumption of poultry contaminated as the raw bird is less of a problem than the possible cross-contamination of the cooked product from the raw.”

Gilbert and Maurer (1968) evaluated the routine cleaning and sanitation for slicing machines, carving knives, and can openers in retail ready-to-eat markets. They wrote, “that cleaning by one of the authors was more efficient than that of the shop staff.” In their discussion, the authors cited two outbreaks in which contaminated equipment was implicated.

GAO (1974) published a report to Congress on ”Salmonella in Raw Meat and Poultry: An Assessment of the Problem. Report to Congress.” The 62-page report is comprehensive but for this short column, a quote: “Overall findings Salmonella-contaminated raw meat and poultry products are reaching the market, yet consumers have not been adequately alerted to the problem nor to safeguards they must take to minimize the spread of this bacteria.”

The APHA vs Butz decision mentioned cross-contamination as a hazard in seven points. The most complete is No. 36: “The court apparently takes the position that meat and poultry ‘ordinarily’ pose no threat of salmonellosis, because American consumers are aware of the problem and familiar with the precautions necessary to prevent its occurrence.” That, however, is a debatable proposition, and appellants, with substantial backing, seriously dispute it.

The record contains facts supporting the appellants’ assertion that people are not generally aware of the danger of Salmonella, much less of the safeguards required to avoid salmonellosis. Moreover, a study conducted for the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration states that “the vast majority of the public and personnel of various food-associated industries barely know that Salmonella exists. Many of them have suffered from salmonellosis, but they do not know why or how to avoid future incidents.”

Cross-contamination continues to be a major food safety problem. Luber (2009) published a well-cited paper worth reviewing that deserves another article.

In conclusion, the APHA vs Butz decision by two of three judges was based on USDA’s then obsolete assertion that consumers needed no warning and that cooking was sufficient. Twenty years later, on recommendation by the NACMPI, FSIS promulgated 9 CFR 317.2(l) and 9 CFR 381.125 “Safe handling instructions shall be provided for: All meat and meat products of cattle, swine, sheep, goat, horse, other equine that do not meet the requirements contained in § 318.17, …”


APHA vs Butz (1974). American Public Health Association et al., Appellants, v. Earl Butz, Secretary of Department of Agriculture, et al> United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit. – 511 F.2d 331 Argued Jan. 22, 1974. Decided Dec. 19, 1974. Rehearing En Banc Denied April 9, 1975

Flippin, H.F. and G.M. Eisenberg. 1960. The Salmonella Problem. Trans Am Clin Climatol Assoc. 1960; 71: 95–106.

GAO 1974. The Comptroller General of the United States. Salmonella in Raw Meat and Poultry: An Assessment of the Problem. Report to Congress. MWD-74-149

Gilbert, R.J. and Maurer, I.M. (1968). Cross-contamination by cooked-meat slicing machines and cleaning cloths. Journal of Hygiene 67, 249.

Kampelmacher, E.H. (1963). Public health and poultry products. British Veterinary Journal 119, 110.

Luber, P. 2009. Cross-contamination versus undercooking of poultry meat or eggs — which risks need to be managed first?. Int J Food Microbiol. 134: 21–28. doi:10.1016/j.ijfoodmicro.2009.02.012.

Sanborn, W. R. (1963). The relation of surface contamination to the transmission of disease. American Journal of Public Health 53, 1278.

Woodburn, M. (1964). Incidence of salmonellae in dressed broiler-fryer chickens. Applied Microbiology 12, 492.

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