Cargill announces massive ground turkey recall

Aug 3, 2011 (CIDRAP News) – Cargill Value Added Meats, a Cargill Meat Solutions Corp. unit based in Wichita, Kan., announced late today that it was recalling about 36 million pounds of fresh and frozen ground turkey produced at its Springdale, Ark., facility, because of possible links to a multistate Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak.

The recall covers ground turkey produced at the Springdale facility from Feb 20 through Aug 2, Cargill said in a statement. The company said it initiated the recall based on its internal investigation, as well as findings of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Cargill, a privately held multinational company based in Minnesota, is the nation's third largest turkey producer, according to a 2009 estimate. Brands subject to the recall include ground turkey chubs, 85% ground turkey, 93% ground turkey, ground patties, and frozen ground patties in various packaging types and sizes.

Affected brands include Honeysuckle White, several grocery store labels, bulk items, and a few others.

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) said today in an e-mailed recall notice that the products bear the number "P-963" inside the USDA inspection mark.

Trace-back investigations and in-plant Salmonella findings, as epidemiologic evidence, link the illnesses to the Cargill ground turkey products, the USDA said.

Cargill said products produced at its three other turkey processing facilities are not part of a recall, nor are other types of products from the Springdale plant. It is suspending ground turkey production at its Springdale unit until the source of Salmonella contamination is found.

"We are closely examining every aspect of our production process and have identified enhancements to our procedures in our efforts to ensure safe food," said Steve Willardsen, president of Cargill's turkey processing business in the statement. "Eliminating foodborne illness is always our goal."

"Public health and the safety of consumers cannot be compromised. It is regrettable that people may have become ill from eating one of our ground turkey products and, for anyone who did, we are truly sorry," he said.

So far the Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak has sickened 79 people in 26 states, an increase of two patients from the initial outbreak report. The outbreak is also linked to the death of a California resident, according to the CDC.

Earlier in the week the FSIS said it didn't have enough evidence to link the illnesses to a specific producer or facilitiy.

The federal government doesn't classify Salmonella as an adulterant in meat, and microbiologic testing that found the outbreak strain in at least three ground turkey samples was done as part of routine surveillance for antibiotic-resistant strains and not prompted by illness reports.

Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), said his group thinks Salmonella should be considered an adulterant and that antibiotic-resistant strains increase the risks.

Salmonella Heidelberg is one of four antibiotic-resistant strains that the Center for Science in the Public Interest,a nutrition and food safety advocacy group, recently petitioned the USDA to declare as adulterants in ground meat and poultry. The CDC has said the resistant strains can lead to more hospitalizations and difficult-to-treat infections. Classifying them as adulterants would trigger testing and earlier product recalls.

Waldrop told CIDRAP News that Salmonella in turkey has decreased in recent years. He said FSIS data have shown the baseline level has dropped from about 20% in the mid to late 1990s to an estimate of 1.7% in the last 2 years.

David A. Halvorson, DVM, an avian health expert at the University of Minnesota, said turkeys and other poultry are taken from barns where they have been living on litter, a mixture of bedding and feces, then processed in several steps, none of which are performed in sterile conditions.

"The net microbiological effect is that pathogens present in and on the bird are being reduced all along the line—probably from billions of bacteria per live bird to tens or hundreds per processed bird," he said. "But none of these steps can eliminate any pathogens."

Ground meat production involves mixing meat from multiple animals, so one animal that is infected with Salmonella mixed in with meat from 100 uninfected ones, for example, can result in a lot of potentially tainted meat, Halvorson said. "So any ground product is more likely to be positive than an individual piece of meat."

Halvorson said producers are constantly looking for new ways to reduce problems and improve their product, and so it is likely that improvements will be made. "What I don't see happening is the production of raw ground meat product that is free of pathogens. This is true of almost any raw product," he added.

News editor Robert Roos contributed to this story.

See also:

Aug 3 Cargill press release

National Turkey Federation background information

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