Cargill Turkey Recall Initiated; Latest Deadly Outbreak Shows Food Safety Overhaul Needed

Update (Aug. 5, 2011): The USDA suspected a link between Cargill ground turkey and the Salmonella outbreak in mid-July, but did not ask Cargill to recall its products until this Wednesday.

Meatpacking giant Cargill has at last issued a recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey after a Salmonella outbreak reportedly killed one and sickened at least 76 others across 26 states. Before the recall announcement, government officials wouldn't hint at which company was involved despite signs pointing to a single facility, as conclusive data supposedly remained lacking. An FSIS press release came out only after Cargill's own press release circulated the wires, leading the agency to finally admit a link between Cargill ground turkey and the outbreak. All of Cargill’s recalled products (more details here) were produced at its Springdale, Arkansas plant, where Cargill said it has suspended production“until it could identify the source of the contamination and fix it”. cdc_heidelbergThe scary thing (besides the ability of one tainted product to sicken people from California to Massachusetts and in between: see map) is that this particular strain, called Salmonella Heidelberg, is also antibiotic-resistant. According to the Center for Disease Control, most people infected with Salmonella recover within four to seven days without treatment. In this case, however, at least 22 people have been hospitalized. From the CDC website:

However, in some persons, the diarrhea may be so severe that the patient needs to be hospitalized. In these patients, the Salmonella infection may spread from the intestines to the blood stream, and then to other body sites and can cause death unless the person is treated promptly with antibiotics.

It‘s alarming enough that so many individuals have been sickened, let alone the added factor of drug resistance, which “can increase the risk of hospitalization or possible treatment failure in infected individuals,” a polite way of saying “death” as Tom Philpott put it in Mother Jones. He also pointed out that these types of outbreaks “are almost certainly related to the meat industry’s practice of giving confined livestock daily antibiotic doses,” and criticizes our government watchdogs who he says “know what’s causing deadly outbreaks like the current one” but have “decided not to do anything to prevent them.”

Another antibiotic-resistant strain, Salmonella Hadar, sickened 12 people during a December 2010 outbreak that was eventually tied to Jennie-O-Turkey burgers, which weren't recalled until April 2011.

Illnesses for the Heidelberg outbreak began as early as March, but according to the USDA (at least until Wednesday night), evidence wasn't strong enough to officially link the illnesses to one establishment, although the CDC had indicated ground turkey is the likely source. We knew earlier this week that Cargill had been contacted by USDA and was working with the agency in its outbreak investigation, but I guess it took the industry time to take responsibility into its own hands. From food safety litigator Bill Marler’s blog:

Good for Cargill for stepping up and recalling the product, and for this:

“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, president of Cargill’s turkey processing business, said in a written statement.

While the government appeared slow to do anything, at least agribusiness took responsibility, even amidst an ongoing investigation that hasn’t really pointed any fingers yet. Former GAP client and whistleblower John Munsell acknowledged Cargill’s action in a comment on Marler’s blog:

A tip of the hat to Cargill, who is quoted above as stating that it has suspended production of ground turkey products at its Springdale Arkansas plant involved until Cargill has determined the SOURCE of the Salmonella Heidelberg and taken corrective actions.

Cargill has more interest in determining the SOURCE of contamination than USDA/FSIS has when discovering pathogen-contaminated meat. FSIS: take a lesson from Cargill! The agency has yet to acknowledge that recurring problems will only be eliminated when corrective actions are implemented at the SOURCE. FSIS is perfectly content to commence and finish investigations at the downstrem DESTINATION facilities which unwittingly purchase meat which was previously contaminated with invisible pathogens such as Salmonella and E.coli.

Munsell circles the discussion back to institutional gaps within our food system. Not only is it a long-winded chase to determine what product has distributed the bacteria, the public often never finds out how the bacteria got there originally.

Greater transparency at every step of the food chain is clearly needed, including the empowerment of workers on the frontlines whose pivotal roles, if properly acknowledged, could lead to quicker recalls or even their prevention in the first place. This a major reason GAP pushes for stronger food whistleblower protections -- non-existent in the meat industry today but desperately needed to enable those who are in the best position to address food safety issues. Otherwise, recalls long after the fact like in this case and many others will continue, at the risk of the public.

Sarah Damian is New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.


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