Turkey Recall Raises U.S. Food Safety Questions

U.S. food safety advocates are calling for changes to meat recall rules after regulators took months to warn the public about a salmonella outbreak that has sickened nearly 80 people and caused one death.

Cargill Inc., one of the largest U.S. meat producers, on Aug. 3 recalled roughly 36 million pounds of fresh and frozen ground turkey produced at its plant in Springdale, Arkansas, after investigators linked the meat to a person who became ill with antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg.

A government agency that tracks antibiotic-resistant pathogens found evidence of the contamination in Cargill ground turkey in early March, and the five-month lapse of time between that discovery and the recall has sparked a renewed debate about how the United States protects the public from tainted meat.


And the company said August 5 that Salmonella Heidelberg was detected at the Springdale plant even earlier than that March discovery.

Routine regulatory testing at the plant in June and July of 2010 found Salmonella Heidelberg on the surface of turkey before it was ground, Cargill spokesman Mike Martin said, but “no corrective action was required because of the low level found.” Martin added that Salmonella Heidelberg is one of the most common of the 2,400- plus strains of salmonella.

Cargill’s turkey recall was the third-largest meat recall in U.S. history. More importantly, it is the biggest-ever Class I recall – which the government defines as “a health hazard situation in which there is a reasonable probability that eating the food will cause health problems or death.”

“While determining the food source can be very challenging in an outbreak like this, I think the government unduly delayed in getting both information to the company and in issuing a public warning and recall,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer group.

Routine sampling by the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) turned up the outbreak strain in four ground turkey samples purchased from four retail stores between March 7 and June 27.


That information made its way to regulators, but it took several months for investigators to definitively link the contaminated meat to reports of human illness, which also began surfacing in March.

Poultry and many other meats are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which cannot move to recall a tainted product until a link to illness has been made.

One of the few exceptions to that is the finding of the particularly lethal bug E. coli 0157 in meat, which starts the recall process.

Food safety attorney Bill Marler told Reuters that a “more logical approach” would be for USDA to adopt recall procedures like those used at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

FDA regulates about 80 per cent of the U.S. food supply, including lettuce and other produce. It can push companies to recall a food that tests positive for a disease-causing pathogen, even if no illness has been reported.

Roughly 10 to 15 per cent of ground turkey in the United States is contaminated with salmonella, which has proved one of the toughest pathogens to contain in the country’s food supply, experts said.

DeWaal, of CSPI, has petitioned USDA to add Salmonella Heidelberg and three other antibiotic- resistant strains linked to prior outbreaks to its list of “adulterants,” joining the deadly E. coli 0157. That step would make selling food products that contain those pathogens illegal under federal law.

“USDA should take action before people get sick, and require controls and testing for these pathogens before they reach consumers,” DeWaal said.

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