Ground turkey recall: Why the lag between illnesses and a public alert?

Cargill launched a voluntary recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey on Wednesday. The government’s investigation into the salmonella outbreak went through a lengthy research process in which results had to be confirmed.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor

posted August 4, 2011 at 8:40 pm EDT

Chicago – The recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey, produced at a plant operated by Cargill Meat Solutions, is the third-largest food recall in US history, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The recall, announced Wednesday, was the result of a salmonella outbreak linked to the facility. One death in California has been attributed to the outbreak, and as of Thursday, 78 cases of people being infected had been reported across 26 states, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a branch of the USDA, is investigating at least one other manufacturer for similar contamination, said David Goldman, an administrator with the USDA, during a conference call with reporters Thursday.

Investigation into the possibility of a salmonella outbreak dates back to late March, when CDC officials noticed an unusually high rate of hospitalizations related to salmonella, a bacteria often found in raw poultry. But the FSIS didn’t issue a public alert about the outbreak until July 29.

Why the lag?

CDC and USDA officials outline a research process in which results have to be confirmed before links are announced or businesses are named.

An initial step in investigating a possible outbreak is for the CDC to undertake patient interviews and home inspections. In the current situation, doing these things led the agency to determine that ground turkey could be the source of the outbreak. It then isolated three individuals, two in Ohio and one in Michigan, and used shopper-card data to trace back samples. All the samples led to a Cargill plant in Springdale, Ark.

USDA officials first contacted Cargill last Friday. The two-month delay in contacting the plant had to do with determining that the concentration of salmonella in the poultry meat in question was higher than average.

“We were finding a dissonant type of information that prevented us from acting at that point,” said Chris Braden, director of the CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases, who also took part in the Thursday conference call with reporters. “So we had to collect additional information to bring it all together.”

Mr. Golden offers a similar explanation. More time was needed to coordinate findings on-site that confirmed test-case results, he says.

“We needed to ensure that everything had lined up in a way that we were convinced,” he said.

When the USDA went ahead and contacted Cargill last week, it met with the company’s legal representatives to inform them of their findings. A second meeting took place Wednesday with Cargill’s corporate management. That resulted in the voluntary recall later in the day, Goldman says.

The recall affects some, but not all, turkey products made at the Springdale plant. The investigation is continuing to determine whether the recall should be expanded to include other products at the plant, Goldman says.

“We have an ongoing evaluation in the plant right now,” he said.

Some public-health experts, including Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, are criticizing government officials for taking an “unusually long” time to tell the public what was happening.

“You have a duty to warn, and you can say what you know and what you don’t know,” he says. “In the long run, you want to protect confidence in the safety of the food supply.”

Mr. Caplan characterizes the outbreak as “significant,” noting the death and illnesses. The government agency, he says, should have shown more urgency to at least inform the public that there could be a problem, even if the findings were still inconclusive.

Wednesday’s recall involves ground turkey produced at the Cargill facility from Feb. 20 through Aug. 2. The company has suspended ground-turkey production “until the source can be pinpointed and actions to address it are taken,” Steve Willardsen, president of Cargill’s turkey processing business, said in a statement.

“Public health and the safety of consumers cannot be compromised. 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,” Mr. Willardsen said.

The Springdale facility is one of three that the company operates in the United States. The USDA last inspected the Springdale plant in 2010, Goldman says.

The last US meat recall by Cargill took place in October 2007, when the company recalled 845,000 pounds of frozen ground-beef patties manufactured in its Butler, Wis., plant because of concerns they were contaminated with the E. coli virus.

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