Turkey source still unclear in Salmonella outbreak

Aug 2, 2011 (CIDRAP News) – The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) yesterday released more details about an investigation into a Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak linked to ground turkey, which since March has led to one death and sickened 76 others in 26 states.

The outbreak strain is one of the types of Salmonella that resist many commonly used antibiotics, a factor that can lead to more hospitalizations and difficult-to-treat infections, the CDC said. Federal officials have not yet identified the producer of the implicated turkey products.

Many of the affected states have one or two cases that have been identified so far, but Ohio, Michigan, Texas, California, Illinois, and Pennsylvania all have reported five or more illnesses linked to the outbreak.

Ken August, a spokesman for the California Department of Public Health, told CIDRAP News that the patient whose death is linked to the outbreak is one of California's six patients. He said California officials are working with federal partners on the trace-back investigation, and so far a source of the contamination has not been identified.

For cases with available information, illnesses began on or after Mar 9. Patients' ages range from 1 year to 88 years, with a median age of 23. Fifty-two percent are male. Of 58 patients with medical records available, 22 (38%) were hospitalized.

When public health officials questioned 51 sick patients during epidemiologic investigations, they found that 49% (25) had eaten ground turkey in the past 7 days, compared with 11% of a control group.

Health and agriculture officials are conducting trace-back investigations on ground turkey products that patients consumed before they got sick.

Four ground turkey samples purchased from four retail locations between Mar 7 and Jun 27 have yielded the outbreak strain, and three of the four were from the same producer, which has not been named. However, the samples were obtained as part of the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, and no illnesses have been linked to them.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) on Jul 29 issued a public health alert about the outbreak and its link to frozen and fresh ground turkey, but so far it has not posted any company recall notices. The USDA did not respond to a CIDRAP News query today about the source of the products.

The FSIS reminded consumers to cook ground turkey dishes to 165ºF and to follow general safe food preparation and handling practices.

Salmonella Heidelberg and three other antibiotic-resistant Salmonella strains that have caused outbreaks aren't currently considered adulterants in ground meat and poultry. In May, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a food safety watchdog, filed a regulatory petition asking the USDA to declare them as adulterants, which would trigger new testing and allow potentially contaminated products to be recalled before they reach consumers.

Sarah Klein, a staff attorney for the CSPI, said today in a statement, "USDA has a responsibility to move proactively to prevent outbreaks, rather than just responding to them once they occur. Both a USDA declaration of adulteration and government and industry testing for Salmonella should be utilized to address this problem."

She added that the Food and Drug Administration could also help address the problem by barring the use of antibiotics in healthy farm animals.

See also:

Aug 1 CDC outbreak notice

Aug 1 CIDRAP News story "Multistate Salmonella outbreak prompts ground turkey alert"

Aug 2 CSPI press release

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