Deadly Salmonella Strain Discovered at Cargill Ground Turkey Plant in 2010

The recent <"">outbreak of drug-resistant Salmonella linked to Cargill ground turkey products is raising some disturbing questions about the U.S. food safety regulations that govern meat and poultry. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that last year, the outbreak strain of Salmonella was found at the same Cargill plant in Arkansas where contaminated products were processed. Four times this year, additional tests turned up the same strain in Cargill ground turkey sold at retail stores. Yet the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) waited until August 3 to announce a recall of Cargill ground turkey, after 78 people – including one victim who died – had already become ill from Salmonella poisoning.

A USDA official blamed the delay on differing rules for Salmonella compared to other dangerous foodborne illnesses. Unlike E. coli, Salmonella isn’t considered an adulterant in meat unless it’s directly linked to an illness or death, the Journal said. Though the USDA has attempted to treat Salmonella as an adulterant in the past, its hands were tied after a federal appeals court ruled that the pathogen was naturally occurring and not a threat if meat is cooked properly.

According to the Journal, the USDA is currently considering a petition submitted by Center for Science in the Public Interest asking that it declare antibiotic-resistant forms of Salmonella adulterants.

USDA rules for meat processing plants actually allow just under half of tests to come back positive for Salmonella. An official with the agency said Cargill was informed about the three positive tests for Salmonella Heidelberg – the strain linked to the current outbreak – that turned up after a routine inspection of the Arkansas plant last year. A Cargill official told the Journal that the facility had passed all USDA performance standards despite a “routine” findings of Salmonella Heidelberg.

The contaminated Cargill ground turkey that was found at retail stores was discovered in April, as a result of testing by the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (Narms). The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) began investigating the Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak in May. A CDC official told the Journal that the agency knew about Narms’ findings in retail stores, but didn’t immediately act on Cargill turkey because it wasn’t clear what food was making the patients ill.

Additional Narms inspections in May, June and July found more Salmonella Heidelberg in turkey from the Cargill plant, but a company official said it wasn’t informed of the findings. It wasn’t until July 29 that the USDA contacted Cargill about Salmonella at the Arkansas plant, according to the Journal. The USDA, which governs meat and poultry can only request a company issue a recall. No recall was announced until August 3, when specific illnesses were tied to the facility.

The Cargill ground turkey recall includes chubs of fresh and frozen ground turkey, as well as retail trays of ground turkey meat and ground turkey patties. Recalled products were sold under the names Honeysuckle White, Giant Eagle, Riverside, HEB, Kroger, Safeway, Fit & Active, Shady Brook Farms, and Spartan. The products subject to recall today bear the establishment number “P-963″ inside the USDA mark of inspection. A complete list of recalled ground turkey products, along with their freeze and use by dates can be found here.

Cargill requests that consumers who may have purchased any recalled ground turkey products return them to the point-of-purchase. The CDC is warning today that because ground turkey has a long shelf life, much of the recalled product could still be in consumers’ freezers. The agency is urging consumers to check packaging on any ground turkey in their homes.

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