Maybe if USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) did not allow so much Salmonella to get into ground turkey in the first place, the current outbreak could have been avoided.

That’s how Consumers Union, the Yonkers, NY publisher of Consumer Reports, sees it. The consumer nonprofit Friday called upon USDA to “drastically tighten its present Salmonella standard.”

Currently, CU says, the FSIS standard for Salmonella allows almost half of the samples tested at ground turkey processors to be contaminated with the pathogen.

“The current USDA ground turkey standard, which allows 49.9 percent of samples in a test run to be positive for Salmonella, is unacceptable and clearly ineffective as a tool for food safety,” said Jean Halloran, director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union.  

The ground turkey industry generally meets the current USDA standard. USDA tests of 121 samples of ground turkey at 22 ground turkey facilities in the first quarter of 2011 show that 10.7 percent were contaminated, about the same number as for 2010.  Consumers Union believes this level is too high and a tighter standard is needed.  

“For one in ten packages of ground turkey to potentially be contaminated with disease-causing Salmonella is simply too great a risk,” said Halloran. “The current USDA standard, which allows almost 50 percent to be contaminated, is completely ineffectual as a tool for reducing this level.”

USDA recently reduced its acceptable level of Salmonella in whole turkeys from 19 percent to 1.7 percent contaminated in a given series of tests. “USDA should make a similar drastic reduction in its performance standard for ground turkey,”  said Halloran.

CU says that similar problems exist with ground chicken, where Salmonella levels are even higher — about one third contaminated in USDA’s 2011 first quarter tests — and the USDA standard for acceptable contamination is 44.6 percent of samples.  

CU periodically has tested whole chicken and found high levels of bacterial contamination since 1998.

An outbreak of antibiotic resistant Salmonella Heidelberg was announced by FSIS and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on July 29.  The outbreak so far has killed one person in California and sickened at least 77 others, with about 40 percent of those requiring hospitalization.

FSIS on Aug. 3 announced Cargill was recalling 36 million pounds of ground turkey manufactured at its Arkansas plant since February.