At least one food poisoning authority fears that, despite the recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey, more Cargill ground turkey products may be contaminated with Salmonella  and should be taken off the market.

“This is not one bad batch of turkey,” warns Dr. Bill Keene, a nationally known foodborne illness specialist and senior epidemiologist at the Oregon Public Health Division. “That’s not the pattern of this outbreak. It’s been going on for months and months, which suggests an ongoing problem.”

salmonella-culture-petri-406.jpgKeene was sufficiently concerned that he bought 15 packages of ground turkey products in the Portland area and sent them to a lab for testing.  The results came back Wednesday: Six of the 15 packages tested positive for Salmonella.

Testing had not yet identified the specific type of Salmonella, so Keene could not say with certainty that his samples were linked to the national outbreak.

Contamination is usually spotty, Keene explains. “You won’t find it in 100 percent of packages, but in this case, we’re finding it in a distressingly high proportion of them.”

Last week, the huge Cargill Corporation recalled 36 million pounds of fresh and frozen ground turkey products processed at the company’s plant in Springdale, Arkansas.  The recall covered specific ground turkey produced between February 20 and August 2 this year. Cargill also suspended production at the Arkansas plant until the problem has been solved.

This followed a determination by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other federal authorities that at least 78 people spread across 26 states have been sickened, and one person died, from food poisoning traced to Cargill’s ground turkey.

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 over five months.

Health authorities point out that turkey and other commercial poultry are susceptible to Salmonella contamination. How this happens is not complicated, Keene says.  Turkeys are killed, then dumped into an ice bath to chill the carcasses and reduce bacterial growth.

“The problem is the bath is heavily contaminated, so there is lots of potential for cross contamination.”

Grinding  the meat increases the risk, he adds.  “If, for example, a bird has a one-in-ten chance of being contaminated, then you grind 10 of them together and you have a probability…. Mix a hundred of them and it’s virtually certain to be contaminated.”

This may be preventable, but apparently it would add to the processing costs in a highly competitive market.

“That’s why I was concerned when I learned that Cargill didn’t recall everything from that plant,” he adds. “I wanted to know why.  Did somebody make a mistake?  Or did somebody make a quick decision that this product had to be recalled but those ones didn’t?  And how did they reach that decision so quickly?”

The  nature of the outbreak, spread over more than five months, suggests that Cargill’s problem is more than one batch of contaminated turkeys, Keene says.  “It may be a machinery problem that is not being picked up by their routine sanitizing procedures.”

To date, Oregon has only one lab-confirmed case of Salmonella poisoning attributed to Cargill’s ground turkey. But Keene wanted to know: Is the outbreak over?

That’s why he bought up the 15 packages of various Cargill ground turkey products and sent them to a Seattle lab. Further testing will determine if the bacteria in the six that tested positive for Salmonella matches the outbreak strain.

Other states are equally curious, he said.  One epidemiologist in another state proposed to do similar testing, but was told there was not enough money in the budget.