Dangerous Salmonella Strain Prompts Massive Turkey Recall

One dead and dozens sickened as a nasty strain of salmonella resistant to antibiotics makes its way through the food chain.

Leah Zerbe August 4, 2011

Check your fridge and freezer! A dangerous pathogen could be tainting your turkey.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—An antibiotic-resistant, virulent strain of salmonella has killed one, sickened nearly 80, and prompted the recall of 36 million tons of fresh and frozen ground turkey, according to industrial food giant Cargill. The strain has been circulating for months as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and budget-slashed state health departments hunted for the source, which now points to Cargill, a company that sources most of its meat and poultry from factory farms. A CDC spokesperson warns that the meat could still be in grocery stores and home freezers, given turkey's long shelf life.

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THE DETAILS: Cargill announced its recall Thursday as it halted ground turkey production at its Arkansas plant, the suspected point of contamination. The company announced that ground turkey products produced at the Springdale, AR, plant from Feb. 20, 2011, to Aug. 2, 2011, could be tainted by Salmonella heidelberg, a particularly dangerous, antibiotic-resistant strain of salmonella. Illnesses caused by this strain are considered to be more serious, more expensive, and harder to treat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is currently investigating the plant, but some public health experts blame the routine feeding of antibiotics to nonorganic livestock for a rise in antibiotic-resistant superbugs such as this one.

"Any use of antibiotics selects for antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and antibiotics are widely used non-therapeutically in turkey production," explains Keeve Nachman, PhD, assistant scientist and director of the Farming for the Future program at Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, part of the university's Bloomberg School of Public Health. "It is absolutely plausible that the antibiotic-resistant Salmonella heidelberg bacteria that infected these 77 individuals developed from the use of antibiotics by producers." Late last year, the Food and Drug Administration released a first-of-its-kind report chronicling the routine use of antibiotics in livestock to boost growth. The agency found that factory farms use a whopping 30 million pounds of antibiotics a year, and that at least 70 percent of antibiotics used in this country are used on animals.

Another group, Center for Science in the Public Interest, has been asking USDA since May to treat this particular strain of salmonella and several others as an "adulterant," which would require new testing to detect contamination more quickly.

Brands recalled are Honeysuckle, Riverside, and Kroger, among others. For a full list, visit FoodSafety.gov

WHAT IT MEANS: The recall comes as Congress works to cut funding from the USDA's Microbiological Data Program and to cut funds needed to implement the recently passed food-safety legislation. "Last night's announcement by Cargill of a recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey products is just the latest example of why we need strong regulatory and public health programs in place to protect consumers," Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, a public health watchdog group, said in a statement Thursday.

Also gross and of note, a study published earlier this year in Clinical Infectious Diseases found that nearly 80 percent of the supermarket turkey products sampled contained staph bacteria in the meat, including MRSA.

Here's how to handle the turkey recall:

• Get help. If you do have tainted Cargill meat from the turkey recall list, don't eat it. You can contact Cargill's consumer relations toll free telephone number at 888-812-1646 with questions.

For food-safety concerns, consumers may contact the USDA’s Ask Karen virtual representative available 24 hours a day. The toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline 888-MPHotline (888-674-6854) is available in English and Spanish, and can be reached from l0 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern Time Monday through Friday. Recorded food-safety messages are available 24 hours a day.

• Avoid factory-farmed meat and poultry. To better protect your family, avoid factory-farmed meat found in most supermarkets, and instead look for local pasture-based meat and poultry products. Search EatWild.com of LocalHarvest.org for more sustainable choices. To save money and to check to see how animals are raised, buy directly from a farm. To save even more, go in with a friend or neighbor and buy in bulk.

• Go heirloom. If you'd like to make Thanksgiving especially memorable and sustainable, start thinking about ordering a pastured heirloom turkey to help keep certain old breeds of turkey from going extinct. The birds are more expensive because they aren't raised in and crowded into industrial systems, but many say the taste is far superior. Check out our Heritage Breed Turkey Guide for more information.