Did you run to the freezer to check the label on your socked-away package of ground turkey after hearing about the recall of Jennie-O products last week? If not, do it now. We’ll wait.
On Thursday, just a week before the traditional day of mass-scale turkey consumption, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service issued a recall of nearly 150,000 pounds of raw ground turkey that may contain the Reading strain of salmonella bacteria. The USDA recommends that if you have one of the suspect packages, throw it out or return it to the store. Although you can cook the danger away and avoid contamination with proper handling, the USDA says, the risk from this antibiotic-resistant bacteria is too great.
Normally, the illness caused by salmonella infections is relatively minor, if unpleasant, and it passes in a few days. But in this outbreak, 63 people have been hospitalized, and one person in California died.
And don’t relax if the turkey or package of drumsticks thawing in your fridge for Thanksgiving dinner isn’t on the recall list. It may well be teeming with salmonella Reading. Indeed, there’s a widespread outbreak of this strain, which has been reported in whole birds and a number of other raw turkey products, and in more brands than just Jennie-O. Over the last 12 months, at least 164 people in 35 states have been infected.
In fact, inspectors have found the same strain in samples of raw turkey products taken from 22 slaughterhouses and seven processing facilities. Which ones? We don’t know, and the USDA is not saying.
A number of consumer advocacy groups, including Consumer Reports, say this secrecy endangers public health. In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue last week, the Safe Food Coalition urged the USDA to publish an urgent public health alert naming the turkey slaughterhouses and processing establishments linked to the salmonella outbreak. It seems a reasonable request, considering the scope of the outbreak, but USDA officials responded by attacking consumer groups as “special interests” making irresponsible suggestions. It’s disappointing that food safety officials view the public as a special interest best kept in the dark until the smoking package of salmonella-tainted turkey infects some unsuspecting diner.
If the USDA doesn’t want to implicate a single turkey supplier, then perhaps it ought to consider the broader approach taken by other agencies faced with serious food-borne illness outbreaks. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, for example, reacted quickly to an outbreak of E. coli in romaine lettuce in April and within two weeks warned consumers to avoid all romaine lettuce from the entire Yuma growing region. And on Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified a second, unrelated outbreak of E. coli in romaine lettuce and warned consumers to avoid any form of the lettuce from any source and from any location until authorities figure out where the bacteria originated, thus implicating all lettuce suppliers.
Why the disclosure disparity at federal agencies? Hard to say, though the USDA has long been criticized by consumer advocates for being too cozy with the agricultural industry it is tasked with regulating. “This outbreak is just another example of the USDA putting corporate interests over the health of American families,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said in a statement last week. She is pushing legislation to define antibiotic-resistant salmonella as an adulterant in poultry products, which would make them subject to USDA’s mandatory recall authority. Multi-drug resistance has become a real threat to human health due to heavy use of antibiotics to prevent disease in poultry and livestock.
For now, it’s best to be exceptionally careful with turkey and closely follow cooking and safe handling recommendations. The same applies to chicken: The CDC is also tracking an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella that has been reported in 29 states among 92 people who consumed various chicken products. The same strain has been found in samples from 58 undisclosed chicken slaughterhouses and processing facilities.