My uncle Orville was foreman on a turkey ranch in north central Minnesota. I remember going up there to visit a couple of times when I was growing up. One of the attractions was going out to these football field-size buildings when they were filled with thousands of baby turkeys.


Even then you had to put on little booties to walk around to “look but not touch.” I remember thinking: “Boy, there sure are a lot of turkeys!”

This past week, as our friends at USDA and CDC finally connected enough dots to recall 36 million pounds of ground turkey, I was thinking the same thing. 

 “There sure are a lot of turkeys,” but at that moment I was not thinking of all the birds that produced all that poultry meat. I was thinking about the individuals and institutions that don’t come out looking very well over this one.

The Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak, which has infected more people that we will probably ever know (most cases are never laboratory confirmed) with dangerous disease and killed a  Californian, is deadly serious.

Yet, the first action taken by our federal government once it admitted a multistate outbreak was underway on July 29 was to issue a public health alert that essentially gave the public instructions on how to thoroughly cook ground turkey.

Compare that to the nationwide outbreak three years ago of Salmonella Saintpaul.  Now Salmonella Heidelberg is one of the strains that is resistant to some common antibiotics doctors typically use to combat the disease.  Unlike Heidelberg–and Hadar, Newport, and Typhimurium—Saintpaul is not antibiotic resistant.

Yet in 2008, the federal government’s reaction to a nationwide outbreak of Salmonella Saintpaul was a public warning not to eat tomatoes, period.  It remained in effect until U.S. tomatoes were excluded from responsibility for an outbreak that was ultimately traced to peppers grown in Mexico.

We all know cooking instructions are important, but the scant attention the initial public warning received made Uncle Sam look like a turkey.

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service was one of the turkeys of the last week.  But the agency was not alone, it had competition from its big boss, 

After issuing cooking instructions and the before the announcement of the 36 million pound recall of ground turkey from a Cargill facility in Arkansas, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited Milwaukee long enough  to address the prestigious International Association for Food Protection.

It might have been a good time for Secretary Vilsack to speak about the antibiotic resistant Salmonella strains that FSIS does not ban from meat. Instead Vilsack did a little tap dance about an eventual action on non-O157 E. coli stains.

The massive recall was only hours away when Vilsack spoke.  The Secretary came across as out of touch with the most important news of the day.  Maybe  he can blame his speech writers, but it still made him one of last week’s turkeys.

Most of the criticism about the great turkey event of 2011 is focused on the government’s investigation, a focus that makes Cargill’s management of the actual recall look good by comparison.

Yet Cargill spokesman Mike Martin also came across as a turkey when he said  no corrective action was taken by the company when Salmonella Heidelberg was found in low levels in the past because its so common.

Martin may be correct, but its an acknowledgement that Cargill is not considering the four antibiotic resistant strains of Salmonella in any special way.   That’s makes him a turkey.

The big turkey companies spend millions advertising their products, and they should be using some of those bucks to educate consumers on those all important cooking instructions.   It’s not enough to rely upon “free media” from FSIS press releases.

In the wake of the Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak, the Hormel Foods-owned Jennie-O Turkey went right on with its television advertising campaign showing happy people eating turkey burgers.  Cooking instructions are not mentioned nor is the public warned about how often Salmonella is found in ground turkey.

Jennie-O did not skip a beat in its turkey burger campaign when its own ground product was recalled in April.   There are no cut-ins with cooking instructions either.  Another turkey?   Most definitely.

No amount of feel good advertising from the airheads that sell such pulp to corporate bigwigs would have made a difference had the federal government’s food safety mechanism worked better.  If as it appears,  a warning  could have gone out maybe as early as May not to eat ground turkey illness and maybe a death could have been prevented.   

Tomato growers did not appreciate having to prove themselves innocent in 2008.  They lost money and, except for those with liberal crop insurance coverage, went without compensation. The warning not to eat tomatoes was still the right public health call at the time.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made the call on tomatoes.  FSIS is once again handing out different treatment at the meat and poultry window.  If we keep accepting this dual standards, well, then, we are all turkeys too.