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Cargill Plant Reopens as Outbreak Numbers Climb

Cargill Inc. has resumed operations at its Springdale, Arkansas, plant — the same plant that produced 36 million pounds of ground turkey that the company recalled because of Salmonella contamination earlier this month.

The plant was reopened after extensive cleaning of its processing line and federal approval of an “enhanced food safety plan” that is “the most aggressive and advanced program in the poultry industry,” said Cargill spokesman Mike Martin.

However,  a sampling of Cargill turkey products tested by Oregon public health officials showed that 10 to 15 percent of the tested meats were contaminated – at least some of it with the same genetic strain identified in the nationwide outbreak of Salmonellla Heidelberg.

One of the world’s largest food companies, with $120 billion in sales last year, Cargill suspended operations at the Arkansas plant early this month and recalled 36 million pounds of fresh and frozen ground turkey products processed at the plant between February 20 and Aug 2.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced yesterday that 111 people from 31 states have now been sickened, and one has died, from food poisoning traced to the contaminated turkey product.

The CDC estimates that for every illness reported in such outbreaks, more than 30 go unreported, meaning that more than 2,000 people may have been sickened by Cargill’s ground turkey over five months.

Cargill spokesman Martin said the company upgraded several elements of its food safety program at the plant, including a new critical control point (or CCP) in the bird chilling system.  They also increased the level of antibacterial treatment by 25 percent and added two antibacterial treatments to the harvest line.

“While the ground turkey room was not in operation, we disassembled and steam cleaned equipment,” Martin added.  “We are also requiring our Springdale suppliers to have a CCP similar to Cargill’s food safety plan.”

The company also modified its sampling and testing program to allow for continuous testing against company standards.

Meanwhile, Oregon health officials bought samples of Cargill ground turkey products and sent them to a Seattle lab for testing.  State epidemiologist Katrina Hedberg reported that “a  number of samples came back positive – about 10 to 15 percent.”

However, that may not be unusual, Hedberg explained, because turkey and other poultry is highly susceptible to Salmonella contamination.

Most consumers are aware of that risk, and understand that adequate cooking kills those microbes, she said.  “We know that a certain percentage tested positive, but we also have to pay attention to the degree of contamination.”

“These are policy questions,” Hedberg said. “We had a sample of Italian sausage that tested positive for the outbreak strain.  But what does that mean?   These are policy decisions.”

Cargill has concluded there was a problem in the Arkansas plant, and they believe they have resolved it.

As for consumers, Hedberg said her advice is, as usual: If you’re going to eat ground turkey or any other ground meat, “Cook it.”

While cooking, take precautions to prevent raw ground turkey from contaminating cutting boards, counter tops or other cooked or uncooked food. And always wash hands after handling raw poultry.

 

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