USDA, CDC questioned over ‘delay' in major turkey recall

By Jim Webster

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, Aug. 4 -- USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service took extra care to be on solid analytical and legal ground this week before it asked Cargill Meat Solutions to order the largest poultry recall in history. However, it was apparent in a briefing for reporters Thursday, its prudent management likely will open the agency to criticism that it did not act fast enough after it had the first clues that some of 77 cases of illness from Salmonella Heidelberg over nearly five months were caused by ground turkey produced at Cargill's Springdale, Ark., processing facility.

David Goldman, assistant administrator for the FSIS Office of Public Health Science, and Chris Braden, director of the Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, painstakingly laid out the complex nature of the investigation that compiled enough evidence for FSIS to take action Wednesday night.

Braden described “a slowly building outbreak at the beginning” with the first reports of illness that developed into a “cluster” in May. Even then, the evidence “did not support a link with ground turkey.” But when four packages of ground turkey, obtained in routine surveillance, showed the same Salmonella strain, it “spurred more intensive questioning of cases [and] eventually did lead to an association with ground turkey.” It was not until July 20, however, that a sample of open turkey in one victim's refrigerator was linked with samples from Cargill.


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After a “very painstaking” traceback process that began July 18, Goldman said FSIS was “able to develop a link between some of the cases and one plant” with enough confidence to ask Cargill to institute the recall. “We had preliminary discussion last Friday with Cargill's legal representatives,” he said. FSIS issued a “public health alert” about suspect ground turkey but did not name Cargill. He implied that FSIS could not go further until it developed a “full set of facts” that it showed “not only to the legal representatives but also corporate management. When we provided the facts to them they came back within a matter of hours and agreed to the recall.”


In the early phase of the investigation, Braden said, “the retail meat tested was not linked to illness that we knew of in any way.” Investigators were asking patients about exposure to potential sources of food poisoning but “actually were not finding particularly many that had exposure to turkey meat,” he said. “There was a lot of dissonant information at the time.” He said there “may have been 30 or 40 other clusters [of illness] that we were following” simultaneously, not all of which developed into outbreaks of food poisoning.

Braden also cleared up a question about whether the Heidelberg strain (one of about 2,000 kinds of Salmonella) had developed resistance to treatment with antibiotics. While some antibiotics were not effective with that particular strain, he said, it does respond to ciproflaxin, a readily available antibiotic, and one or two other common medications.


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