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Cargill Recalls Salmonella-Contaminated Turkey

August 4, 2011

One of the nation’s leading meat producers announced Wednesday the recall of more than 35 million pounds of ground turkey that has been linked to a salmonella outbreak that has so far sickened 76 people around the country and has claimed the life of one person in California.

Cargill Inc. initiated the recall on the same day Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the International Association for Food Protection that safe food is a national priority.

“For poultry, we’ve established new, tougher performance standards for salmonella,” he said to an audience in Milwaukee. “Establishments that fail to meet our new standards will have their names published and undergo a more intensified inspection.”

The recall is the largest Class I recall in USDA’s history, meaning it “involves a health hazard situation in which there is a reasonable probability that eating the food will cause health problems or death,” according to US Department of Agriculture rules. Overall, the recall is the second largest in US history.

The outbreak has affected people in 26 states so far and Cargill is hoping the recall will now keep the outbreak from spreading any further. It halted production and output of ground-turkey at its Springdale, Arkansas plant that may have produced the tainted meat from February 20 to August 2, Cargill said in a statement on Wednesday.

“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,” Steve Willardsen, the president of Cargill’s turkey-processing business, said in an e-mailed statement to Bloomberg.

The USDA said the voluntary recall is for fresh and frozen ground turkey products produced by Cargill Value Added Meats from its Springdale, AR. Consumers are urged to return any unopened packages of ground turkey items listed on the Cargill product-recall list for a full refund. The list can be found here.

Richard Raymond, former undersecretary for food safety at USDA, said because the recall goes back so far, most of the meat has most likely already been consumed.

Federal and state officials had searched for the cause of the salmonella outbreak for months. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Monday published a probe saying the microbe — salmonella Heidelberg — is resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics.

Seattle food safety lawyer Bill Marler told USA Today that the public should have been told long ago what products were obviously sickening people. “I don’t think it serves the Food Safety Inspection Service well because it makes it look as if they’re doing the industry’s bidding, when I in fact know that’s not what they’re doing.”

The CDC confirmed the one death came from poisoning by the salmonella Heidelberg. Most cases of sickening, however, have come from Ohio and Michigan — 10 cases in each state. Texas had nine, Illinois seven and California six.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is calling for tighter regulations on US food supply. They say poultry needs to be checked for the antibiotic-resistant strain blamed for the outbreak. The advocacy group in May petitioned the government to require such testing. Without some form of federal monitoring, future outbreaks are likely to continue, said Sarah Klein, attorney for the Washington-based organization.

“This outbreak represents the urgency of the situation,” Klein told Bloomberg in a phone interview. “We need to take a proactive approach.”

Safeway Inc. said some of the recalled meat was packaged as “Safeway Fresh Ground Turkey” and sold at its Randall’s and Tom Thumb stores in Texas. Those outlets are voluntarily participating in the recall, Safeway said in a news release on Wednesday. Safeway said none of its other operations are affected due to the recall.

The latest recall could cause short-term weakness in demand for turkey products, Karl Skold, an economist and the former head of commodity procurement for ConAgra Foods Inc., said in a telephone interview with Bloomberg. Consumers tend to have a “fairly short-term memory.”

“Once it’s removed and the shelves are restocked, most people will go back to buying it,” said Skold. Initially, demand for other products like ground beef or ground chicken may improve as consumers substitute those meats for turkey, he said.

Salmonella is common in poultry products and can be eliminated with proper cooking practices. The USDA in a 29 July public health alert reminded consumers that ground turkey should always be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit to kill food-borne bacteria, including salmonella.

The initial symptoms of salmonella poisoning include diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps. Most people recover without treatment. But, in some cases, hospitalization is necessary, and an infection can be deadly if not treated promptly with antibiotics. Although, the Heidelberg strain of the bacteria is resistant to antibiotics.

Older adults, infants and people with impaired immune systems are more likely to have a severe salmonella illness, according to the CDC.

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