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National Health Alert Issued for Ground Turkey

An outbreak already infecting 77 people in 26 states with Salmonella Heidelberg prompted an unusual public health alert late Friday about the “critical importance” of safe handling of ground turkey.

The

alert about all frozen and fresh ground turkey was issued by the U.S.

Department of Agriculture (USDA) through its Food Safety and Inspection

Service (FSIS), which regulates meat and poultry. A public health alert

not involving a specific brand or product recall is a rare action for

USDA.

With the public health alert came the

first notice that the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and

state health departments have identified and are investigating the

multistate outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg.

“The

public health alert was initiated after continuous medical reports,

ongoing investigations and testing conducted by various departments of

health across the nation determined there is an association between

consumption of ground turkey products and an estimated 77 illnesses

reported in 26 states,” the USDA statement says.

CDC

and state health departments made the link through epidemiological

investigation and pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) analysis,

according to the FSIS.  While CDC and the state health departments are

investigating the outbreak, FSIS said it is working to determine the

source of the contamination.

That indicates the

agency does not have enough information to recall specific products,

but is trying to guard against new illnesses by educating consumers

about ground turkey in general.

Bill Marler, food-safety attorney and publisher of Food Safety News,

said he found the timing of the alert, which was issued Friday at 8

p.m. EDT, somewhat perplexing. “This is classic ‘release news when no

one will see it.’  The release, other than saying 77 people in 26 states

are sick from possibly eating ground turkey, gives the consumer no

information — no manufacturer, no states named where people are ill.

“Also,

from the point of view of ground turkey manufacturers, is it right to

throw the entire industry under the bus?,” Marler asked.

In April, FSIS did conduct a fairly large recall

(54,960 pounds) of frozen, raw turkey products from Minnesota-based

Jennie-O Turkey Store because of Salmonella contamination, but the

serotype in that instance was Hadar, not Heidelberg. Twelve people in 10

states were sickened.

In its news release,

FSIS reminds consumers of “the critical importance of following package

cooking instructions for frozen or fresh ground turkey products and

general food safety guidelines when handling and preparing any raw meat

or poultry” and urges people to use a meat thermometer.

“In

particular, while cooking instructions may give a specific number of

minutes of cooking for each side of the patty in order to attain 165 °F

internal temperature, consumers should be aware that actual time may

vary depending on the cooking method (broiling, frying, or grilling) and

the temperature of the product (chilled versus frozen) so it is

important that the final temperature of 165 °F must be reached for

safety. Please do not rely on the cooking time for each side of the

patty, but use a food thermometer.

“Ground

turkey and ground turkey dishes should always be cooked to 165 °F

internal temperature as measured with a food thermometer; leftovers also

should be reheated to 165 °F. The color of cooked poultry is not always

a sure sign of its safety. Only by using a food thermometer can one

accurately determine that poultry has reached a safe minimum internal

temperature of 165 °F throughout the product. Turkey can remain pink

even after cooking to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F. The

meat of smoked turkey is always pink.”

Consumers

should also take steps to ensure that raw ground turkey and its juices

do not cross contaminate other foods that won’t be cooked or are already

cooked. Use hot, soapy water to clean up spills on cutting boards,

countertops, dishes and in sinks, and wash hands thoroughly after

handling the meat.

Food contaminated with

Salmonella can cause salmonellosis, one of the most common bacterial

foodborne illnesses.  It can be  life-threatening, especially to those

with weak immune systems, such as infants, the elderly and persons with

HIV infection or undergoing chemotherapy. 

The

most common symptoms of salmonellosis are diarrhea, abdominal cramps,

and fever within eight to 72 hours. Additional symptoms may be chills,

headache, nausea and vomiting that can last up to seven days.

Salmonella

Heidelberg is a common strain in the U.S.  Recently associated with a

number of outbreaks in nursing homes, it was also the strain involved at

A & R Barbeque (also known as A & R Bar-B-Q) in Memphis, the

source of an outbreak in 2009.

In Salmonella

outbreaks linked to ground turkey, 26 people were sickened with

Salmonella Saintpaul in 2008 after eating ground turkey at a private

home in Michigan. An outbreak of  Salmonella Typhimurium at a Minnesota

restaurant in 2000 was linked to ground turkey; four people — two of

them food workers — were infected. 

© Food Safety News