Aug 3, 2011 (CIDRAP News) – Federal and state investigators have not yet conclusively linked a multistate Salmonella outbreak to a ground turkey producer, but Cargill Inc. confirmed that it has been contacted by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) about its production processes, according to media reports.
Mike Martin, a spokesman for Cargill, told Meatingplace, an industry news Web site, that the USDA requested routine information about the company's ground turkey production and that it complied.
Cargill, a privately held multinational company based in Minnesota, is the nation's third largest turkey producer, according to a 2009 estimate. Its ground turkey brands include Honeysuckle White.
So far no product recalls have been issued in the wake of the Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak, which has sickened 77 people in 26 states and is linked to the death of a California resident, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Neil Gaffney, a spokesman for the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), told CIDRAP News today that despite an intensive investigation by the FSIS, there is little epidemiologic information that links the illnesses to a specific product or establishment. "
"Without specific enough data, it would not be appropriate to issue a recall notice," he said "FSIS is committed to continuing this investigation in order to obtain the additional information necessary to find the source of this outbreak, and take appropriate action to protect public health."
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said after he spoke at a food safety conference in Milwaukee today that federal officials hope to find the outbreak source "very, very soon" and will encourage the industry to issue a recall, once the source is identified, the Associated Press (AP) reported.
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.
National Turkey Federation background information