The national outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg infection traced to Cargill ground turkey is apparently over, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday.
The seven months-long outbreak, which resulted in a massive recall — the largest-ever Class I food recall in the U.S. — poisoned 136 people in 34 states. A California man died from Salmonella infection after eating contaminated ground turkey and at least 37 people were hospitalized.
Because it is resistant to multiple common antibiotics, this strain of Salmonella may have been more difficult to treat and possibly increased the chance that its victims would require hospitalization.
The CDC, in its final report, said the outbreak of illnesses stretched from Feb. 27 and Sept. 13. Those who got sick from eating contaminated ground turkey ranged in age from younger than 1 to 90 years old. The median age was 23.
Texas reported 18 cases; Illinois 16; Michigan and Ohio 12 each; Pennsylvania 8; California and Missouri 7 each; Colorado, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Wisconsin 4 each; Arizona, Kansas, New York and South Dakota 3 each; Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Tennessee 2 each; and Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Louisiana, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Utah and Vermont 1 each.
The Salmonella crisis came to light on July 29, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued a Friday public health alert urging caution in handling raw ground turkey and advising consumers to cook ground turkey thoroughly to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. No brand names were mentioned.
It wasn’t until Aug. 3 — after news that contaminated ground turkey had claimed the life of a Sacramento man — that Cargill announced a recall and began to get the tainted turkey off the market.
Later, FSIS officials acknowledged that samples of Cargill’s ground turkey, collected routinely from its Springdale, AR plant, had tested positive for the outbreak strain of harmful bacteria as early as March. They said they did not have enough epidemiological evidence to warrant a recall until July.
That lag time was termed a “troubling lapse” by food safety advocates critical of the way the outbreak investigation was handled. Salmonella is not considered an adulterant in meat, although consumer groups have petitioned USDA to classify four antibiotic-resistant strains as adulterants. Such a designation would require federal agencies to detect the bacteria’s presence and prevent distribution of any food contaminated by the resistant bugs. The meat industry opposes the proposal.
Cargill initially recalled 36 million pounds of potentially contaminated ground turkey, halted production in Springdale, cleaned its plant and then resumed processing turkey a few days later. It hired experts to critique its operations and said it now has “the most aggressive Salmonella monitoring program in the poultry industry.”
On Sept. 11, the company shut down production again and recalled another 185,000 pounds of ground turkey.
Lost production at the plant, which processes about 7 million pounds of turkey products weekly, cost Cargill about $2.4 million per week. The company laid off 130 of the plant’s 1,200 workers in early October, but by the end of the month had brought back 40 of those employees.
CDC Outbreak Map: