By MARY CLARE JALONICK, Associated Press
RUPA SHENOY, Minnesota Public Radio
WASHINGTON - Meat giant Cargill is recalling 36 million pounds of ground turkey linked to a nationwide salmonella outbreak that has killed one person in California and sickened at least 76 others, including one in Minnesota.
Illnesses in the outbreak date back to March and have been reported in 26 states coast to coast.
Cargill said Wednesday that it is recalling fresh and frozen ground turkey products produced at the company's Springdale, Ark., plant from Feb. 20 through Aug. 2 due to possible contamination from the strain of salmonella linked to the illnesses.
A statement from read, "It is regrettable that people may have become ill from eating one of our ground turkey products and, for anyone who did, we are truly sorry."
Company officials said that all ground turkey production has been suspended at the plant until the company is able to determine the source of the outbreak.
"Given our concern for what has happened, and our desire to do what is right for our consumers and customers, we are voluntarily removing our ground turkey products from the marketplace," said Steve Willardsen, president of Cargill's turkey processing business.
The Minnesota-based company said it was initiating the recall after its own internal investigation, an Agriculture Department investigation and information about the illnesses released by the CDC this week.
All of the packages recalled include the code "Est. P-963" on the label, according to Cargill. The packages were labeled with many different brands, including Cargill's Honeysuckle White.
Last year, Cargill recalled 8,500 lbs of ground beef products suspected of E. coli contamination.
Craig Hedberg, a professor in the U of M's Environmental Health Sciences division, said Cargill may have taken precautionary steps at the plant but, because of the volume of meat, still missed the salmonella contamination.
"You can't jump from having a recall to assuming there is necessarily a specific failure on the part of the company to not recognize this," Hedberg said. "But certainly one of the things USDA and the company will be doing will be going back and looking at records from that plant to see if there are things that they might've missed."
The CDC said this week that cultures of ground turkey from four retail locations between March 7 and June 27 showed contamination with the same strain of salmonella, though those samples had not been specifically linked to the illnesses. The CDC said preliminary information showed that three of those samples were linked to the same production establishment, but it did not name that plant.
A chart on the CDC's website shows cases have occurred every month since early March, with spikes in May and early June. The latest reported cases were in mid-July, although the CDC said some recent cases may not have been reported yet.
The CDC said the strain is resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics, which can make treatment more difficult. The agency said 38 percent of those sickened were hospitalized.
Hedberg said animals exposed to antibiotics may produce antibiotic-resistant salmonella. Scientists have documented an increasing number of animals with antibiotic-resistant salmonella over the last five years, he said.
Government officials say the contaminated ground turkey is safe to eat if it is cooked and handled properly.
The states with the highest number sickened were Michigan and Ohio, 10 illnesses each, while nine illnesses were reported in Texas. Illinois had seven, California six and Pennsylvania five.
The remaining states have between one and three reported illnesses linked to the outbreak, according to the CDC: Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wisconsin.
The CDC estimates that 50 million Americans each year get sick from food poisoning, including about 3,000 who die. Salmonella causes most of these cases and federal health officials say they've made virtually no progress against it.
Government officials say that even contaminated ground turkey is safe to eat if it is cooked to 165 degrees. But it's also important that raw meat be handled properly before it is cooked and that people wash their hands with soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling the meat. Turkey and other meats should also be properly refrigerated or frozen and leftovers heated.
The most common symptoms of salmonella are diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever within eight hours to 72 hours of eating a contaminated product. It can be life-threatening to some with weakened immune systems.
Cargill executive Willardsen said, "Public health and the safety of consumers cannot be compromised."
"It is regrettable that people may have become ill from eating one of our ground turkey products," he said, "and, for anyone who did, we are truly sorry."