Cargill announced Wednesday it is recalling almost 36 million pounds of ground turkey products that may be contaminated with a multi-drug resistant strain of Salmonella Heidelberg, a pathogen linked to at least 76 illnesses across the United States and one death in California.

The recalled meat came from a single processing facility in Springdale, Arkansas, but ended up in dozens of different ground turkey products sold nationwide under a variety of brand names including Honeysuckle White, Shady Brook Farms, Riverside, Aldi’s Fit and Active Fresh, Spartan, Giant Eagle, Kroger and Safeway.

Cargill is recalling products produced between February 20 through Aug 2, 2011 and halting production of ground turkey products at the facility until the source of contamination is identified and corrected. Products subject to recall bear the establishment number “P-963” inside the USDA mark of inspection.

As consumers take to their fridges and freezers to figure out if their ground turkey has been recalled, local, state and federal public health officials are working to identify and link illnesses to the outbreak. At least 77 illnesses in 26 states, beginning as early as March, have been reported to be the same strain of resistant Salmonella.

Those numbers are likely to grow as more consumers learn of the recall. Normally, a low percentage of foodborne illnesses are ever lab-confirmed and thus reported to public health authorities, let alone definitively linked to outbreaks.

“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,” said Stevel Willardson, president of Cargill’s turkey processing division, in a statement.

Cargill’s recall follows a July 29 USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service public health alert, issued last Friday, urging consumers to use caution when handling ground turkey and to cook all poultry products to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.

Serious questions remain about why it took food safety officials several months to issue a public health alert or announce a product recall after Salmonella Heidelberg illnesses began to spike in March.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also announced that the agency found four retail ground turkey samples to be positive for the same strain of Salmonella Heidelberg between early March and late June. The samples were taken as part of routine sampling for the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS), and had “not been linked to illnesses” so they did not spark a recall. Salmonella is not considered an adulterant in meat products, but consumer groups have petitioned USDA to consider antibiotic-resistant strains adulterated.

As late as Tuesday, FSIS officials said there was not enough evidence to substantiate a recall. Wednesday the agency said that epidemiologic and traceback investigations, as well as in-plant findings, led the agency to determine there is a link between the Cargill ground turkey products and the outbreak.

“FSIS is continuing to work with CDC, affected state public health partners, and the company on the investigation. FSIS will continue to provide information as it becomes available, including information about any further related recall activity,” the agency said in a press update Wednesday.

Salmonella infections can be life-threatening, especially to those with compromised immune systems, including the young and the elderly. The most common manifestations of salmonellosis are diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever within six to 72 hours. Additional symptoms may be chills, headache, nausea and vomiting that can last up to seven days. Individuals concerned about an illness should contact a health care provider.

A complete list of recalled products, with pictures of labels, can be found on the Cargill website.