The public doesn’t need to know which turkey plants have been found to be contaminated with a deadly strain of Salmonella that has infected people in 35 states, federal officials said yesterday in a strongly worded statement.
Also, organizations such as Consumer Reports and the Center for Science in the Public Interest shouldn’t be asking questions about how the USDA is handling the outbreak investigation, as far as government officials are concerned.
“… it would be grossly irresponsible and reckless to associate producers with an outbreak investigation, when a link from an establishment to an illness has not been made. It’s also not helpful to consumers,” according to the statement issued Nov. 14 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Trace back investigations are conducted in the field through on the ground work, not Monday morning quarterbacking from the comforts of an urban high rise in New York City or K Street in Washington, D.C., with fundraising pleas attached.”
The USDA statement, emailed by a public affairs specialist, did not quote any individual officials from the agency. It repeated much of what has been said — and not said — since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first announced the outbreak in July.
From the first, the government has been reporting staff from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service found the outbreak strain of Salmonella Reading at multiple turkey slaughter and processing facilities during “routine testing under the (federal) Salmonella performance standards.” Federal officials won’t say where those facilities are located or who owns them.
Food Safety News asked USDA officials when its inspectors collected the positive samples, but the agency did not provide the information.
The CDC says the first known outbreak patient became sick on Nov. 20, 2017. As of Nov. 5, the most recent known illness onset date was Oct. 20. However, people who became sick after Oct. 3 might not yet be reported because there can be 14 to 28 days between when a person becomes sick and when their illness is lab-confirmed and reported.
In its most recent update, the CDC reported 164 people across 35 states have been confirmed infected with the relatively rare and virulent strain of Salmonella Reading. At least 63 have been admitted to hospitals. One person has died.
Many of the patients specifically remember handling raw turkey or raw turkey pet food, or eating turkey in the days before they became ill. Samples of turkey collected from some of the patient’s homes has tested positive for the outbreak strain of Salmonella Reading.
Both the CDC and the USDA are working to find out where patients bought the turkey that tested positive and what brands are involved.
“We have interviewed patients, looked at receipts and shopper card data, and tested any product that case patients still have,” according to the USDA statement. “All this information is necessary to link back to a supplier or establishment. … If we had specific products that we could alert consumers to with a Public Health Alert, we would issue one.
“At the moment, there is no actionable information for consumers, other than to remind them that this is an ongoing investigation and that consumers should always handle raw turkey carefully and cook it thoroughly to prevent food poisoning. This outbreak is a reminder that raw turkey products can have germs that spread around food preparation areas and can make you sick (emphasis as released by USDA).”
Consumer groups want to know why the public can’t know
Several hours before the USDA’s statement yesterday, Consumer Reports called for the agency to release the names of the owners of the 22 turkey slaughter operations and seven processing facilities where the agency has found the outbreak strain of Salmonella.
“This information could save lives and help ensure consumers take the precautions needed to prevent anyone in their home from getting sick,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumer Reports.
Consumer Reports has also called on USDA to classify dangerous strains of Salmonella such as the outbreak strain as an adulterant, so that foods containing them cannot be sold.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) also issued a statement this week calling on government to error on the side of the public instead of business. Like the Consumer Reports statement, the CSPI stressed the fact that the outbreak strain of Salmonella Reading is resistant to multiple antibiotics, making it even more important for the federal government to release information.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture knows more about the turkey products implicated in this outbreak than it is disclosing to the media or the American people. The agency has detected the outbreak strain in samples from raw turkey products from 22 slaughter and 7 processing establishments but has not published their names,” CSPI’s Deputy Director of Regulatory Affairs Sarah Sorscher said.
“We urge USDA to name these establishments. It is the responsibility of the government to ensure that the turkeys headed for our Thanksgiving tables do not harbor antibiotic-resistant bacteria that have caused human illness and death. And if it can’t do that, it should at least help consumers avoid tainted turkey.”
USDA isn’t pulling any punches
Requests for transparency don’t appear to be holding any sway with the USDA. The agency’s statement says it already gives away vast amounts of information about the more than 40,000 raw poultry samples it collects annually from more than 6,400 regulated establishments.
“The agency makes millions of data points available every year, and every month is adding additional reports related to sampling results and individual establishment food safety results — all in an effort to satisfy stakeholder appetite for a more accessible regulatory agency” according to the USDA statement.
“We will continue to do so. In fact, special interest groups would have no window into the federal government investigation into this outbreak if FSIS hadn’t shared information with them.”
The federal agency’s statement made the public debate personal when it came to the advocates’ calls for information.
“It is insulting to suggest that the agency would not move forward if we had actionable information. FSIS is a public health agency that moves forward when science can serve as the foundation of our action plan — not when emotion or pressure from for-profit industry or special interest groups demand it.”
All together now
One thing all government agencies, consumer groups and industry associations have agreed on since the CDC announced the outbreak in July is the need for strict food safety practices in homes, restaurants and other foodservice operations.
The USDA and the turkey industry are also strongly encouraging the public to go ahead with the traditional Thanksgiving bird this year.
“For consumers, the bottom line is that all turkey is safe when properly cooked and handled,” according to the National Turkey Federation. “The turkey industry remains committed to reducing Salmonella and continuing to explore scientific and technological innovations that would help control naturally occurring pathogens in food products.”
The USDA’s outbreak statement yesterday didn’t stop with the agency’s commitment to continue its investigation and release “actionable information” about turkey and turkey products as it becomes available. It included advice and reassurances.
“As families start their holiday plans they may be wondering what this means for them. The answer is simple. Salmonella is prevalent and can be present in raw meat and poultry and in live poultry — no raw meat or poultry is sterile,” the USDA said.
“Consumers can protect themselves by cooking their turkey, other poultry products, and meat thoroughly. The cooking process kills the Salmonella. No one should be eating partially cooked or raw turkey. Additionally, it is essential that people wash their hands after handling raw poultry, meat and pet food to avoid cross contamination of other foods, spice containers, or kitchen surfaces.
“FSIS will continue to work with our public health partners to release information as it becomes available and will take action when we have the evidence. …In the meantime, it’s important that consumers know they can purchase and safely consume these products.”
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