Cargill more aggressive in fighting meat contamination

Cargill turkey processing plant
A truckload of live turkeys arrives at the Cargill turkey processing plant in Springdale, Ark., Thursday, Aug. 4, 2011. Cargill recalled 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 a strain of salmonella.
AP Photo/Danny Johnston

Ground turkey production at a Cargill meat plant in Arkansas is still shut down, a month after processing was suspended for the second time in less than six weeks because of salmonella contamination.

Public health authorities identified the ground turkey as the likely cause of 130 illnesses and one death, prompting the Minnesota-based food processor to recall some 36 million pounds of the product. It was the second largest meat recall in U.S. history.

The bacteria problems and Cargill's response could change the way the meat processing industry operates.

Although it was far from Cargill's first recall, the company's action last month dwarfed anything it had done in the past. In 2007, Cargill recalled about a million pounds of ground beef. In 2000 there was an even bigger recall, nearly 17 million pounds of poultry deli meat.

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The latest recall has prompted a new look at the industry.

At a recent workshop on the meat industry sponsored by a Washington, D.C. public relations firm, Elisabeth Hagen, the U.S. Agriculture Department's top food safety enforcer, said federal regulators need to study how they monitor ground poultry.

"I think that this very large outbreak and recall really shook people up and got people's attention," Hagen said.

The recall prompted an intense review of the plant that produced the tainted Cargill ground turkey. Mike Martin, Cargill's director of communications, said that when the Twin Cities-based company reopens ground turkey production at the Springdale, Ark., facility, the plant will set a new standard for meat processing safety.

"[It will have] the most aggressive, the most advanced testing and monitoring system in the poultry industry in the United States," Martin said.

The company is implementing those plans after a frustrating battle against a tenacious pathogen. The recalled ground turkey was contaminated with an antibiotic-resistant version of the Salmonella Heidelberg strain.

Cargill officials believe the first meat containing the pathogen was shipped last February. The bug was only discovered after people became ill. Investigators linked the illnesses to Cargill ground turkey.

In early August, Cargill stopped processing ground turkey, Martin said.

"We disassembled and steam-cleaned the equipment in the plant," he said. "We also added additional bacterial washes."

The company also increased the frequency of its salmonella testing ten-fold. But even the new measures weren't enough. After a U.S. Agriculture Department test found that the pathogen was still present, Cargill shut processing down for a second time in early September and recalled more meat.

Cargill is considering extra safety steps once production resumes -- among them a high-pressure process that kills any bacteria in the meat. The company already uses the process on some ground beef products. Cargill may also start vaccinating turkeys against certain salmonella strains.

Some of Cargill harshest critics are praising the moves, including Seattle attorney Bill Marler, who has a long and successful history representing people injured in food-borne illness outbreaks. He's filed at least two lawsuits against Cargill on behalf of victims of the contaminated ground turkey.

But even Marler says he was pleased that Cargill acted quickly in September to voluntarily issue the second recall.

"That's a significant, positive step that I hope Cargill continues, and I hope other companies throughout the United States model," Marler said.

Other critics wonder if Cargill's actions will be enough, even as they commend the company.

Jaydee Hanson, a policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, said the Minnesota company's track record for contaminated meat is probably no worse than other major meat companies. But he said Cargill and the other meat packers are stuck in a system that crowds animals into inadequate spaces, and relies too heavily on drugs to keep animals healthy.

"The growers of those poultry, beef and pork think they have to feed them all of these antibiotics to help them keep growing instead of getting sick," Hanson said. "You're going to breed antibiotic-resistant bacterias."

Hanson said to really fix the problem, meat producers need to overhaul the entire system of how animals are raised and how their meat is processed for the dinner table. But Cargill officials are not thinking of any move that drastic.