by Marion Nestle
Aug 11 2011

Q. What’s with the turkey recall? A. Same old, same old

I’ve been rounding up information about the Cargill recall of ground turkey contaminated with Salmonella Heidelberg.  William Neuman at the New York Times related the story on August 3. Same old same old.

Cargill is a huge company with, as Bill Marler counts them, a long history of food safety problems.  Did Cargill not bother to test for pathogens?   As I explain in my book Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, no meat company wants to test for pathogens.  If they found pathogens, they would have to recall the products.

And where was the USDA in all of this?  Best not to ask.

The USDA was testing.  The testing found Salmonella.  The USDA did nothing.

According to the Wall Street Journal,

Federal officials said they turned up a dangerous form of salmonella at a Cargill Inc. turkey plant last year, and then four times this year at stores selling the Cargill turkey, but didn’t move for a recall until an outbreak killed one person and sickened 77 others.

How come?

Food-safety specialists said the delay reflected a gap in federal rules that don’t treat salmonella as a poisonous contaminant, even if inspectors find antibiotic-resistant forms such as the Heidelberg strain implicated in the latest outbreak.

But CDC investigations show that turkey-related illnesses have been reported for months.  Despite the reports, the USDA took its own sweet time insisting on a recall.

The rationale for the delay is—get this—the USDA believes it does not have the authority to order recalls for any contaminant except E. coli O157:H7.  It has no authority to recall meat contaminated with Salmonella or other toxic forms of E. coli.

Or at least that’s how USDA interprets the legal situation (for the history of all this, see Bill Marler’s summary.

One reason for the USDA’s foot-dragging must surely be pressure from the meat industry which wants as little testing as possible and preferably none.  The meat industry would rather leave it up to you to cook your food safely.

According to a report by Elizabeth Weise in USA Today,

The reasons these bugs aren’t currently regulated are a mix of politics, money and plain biology — the bacteria are constantly evolving and turning up in new and nastier forms, making writing rules about them a bit of a nightmare. For example, the German E. coli variant that sickened more than 4,075 in Europe and killed 50…wasn’t known before this spring.

The meat industry takes advantage of this situation and argues:

“We don’t have a true baseline determining the prevalence of these organisms in the beef supply,” says Betsy Booren of the American Meat Institute (AMI) Foundation, the research arm of AMI. Without knowing how common they are, it’s impossible to say whether they should be considered adulterants, she says.

What they seem to be saying is that meat always has bacteria on it.  And just because these particular bacteria can kill people doesn’t mean the industry is responsible if anyone gets sick.  But shouldn’t the industry be doing a better job?

In Food Safety News, Michele Simon has a terrific analysis of the safety loopholes that allow this absurd situation to continue:

How did the meat industry get so powerful that it can keep USDA from doing its job? Now, instead of preventing illnesses from occurring by requiring testing with teeth, we have USDA regulations that are so lax they allow almost half the samples tested at ground turkey plants to be contaminated with Salmonella — a pretty easy standard to meet. And one that allowed this outbreak to occur.

I keep asking: how much worse does it have to get before Congress does something about ensuring safe food.  Cargill’s inability to protect the public from unsafe meat is reason alone to create a single food safety system that unites the functions of USDA and FDA.

If Congress isn’t ready to take that step, it could at least give USDA the power to act and the FDA the funding it needs to do its job.

  • http://providingnourishment.com Kathleen Nolan

    Many people do not know (and probably would have a hard time believing when they DID find out) that neither the USDA nor the FDA HAS THE LEGAL AUTHORITY TO FORCE A RECALL OF TAINTED FOODS. How bizarre is THAT???!!! Worst case scenario, with repeated, egregious offences, the agency can lock the door of the offending plant until the issue is resolved.

  • http://gfpumpkins.wordpress.com Alissa

    I can see only one situation that would drive Congress to do anything about this: a bunch of them getting sick from food at an event. Or a few of their family members dying in this kind of outbreak. I don’t wish harm upon anyone, but it seems the only way some people learn is when those close to them are harmed. I hope it doesn’t come to that, and that they can fix this sooner and with fewer deaths.

  • chuck

    Raw milk is proved by the CDC to be safe but it is harder to legally acquire than marijuana. But known to be tainted meat is allowed to be sold to thousands if not millions of people. What F’d up food policy this country has.

  • Charlie L

    I just finished reading Dr. Nestle’s Safe Food recently. In light of this excellent primer, given the patchwork and toothless regulation of food in this country, Cargill’s ability to stymie any regulatory efforts around its ground turkey incident isn’t suprising at all. Perhaps in a few years, the USDA will be given legal authority to issue recalls on this particular strain of salmonella, but by then, there’s going to be a new bad bug on the block.

    What’s also interesting is the number done on the private Rawsome food buying co-op while the ground turkey outbreak was going on. For selling raw milk (definitely safer in comparison to Cargill’s ground turkey) without a permit, the Feds along with other agencies came in armed with guns, arrested 50 and 60-year old hippies without bail, and destroyed a lot of property at this private, volunteer-run co-op in California.

    What a disparity in regulation!

  • Roxanne

    I wish people would give up the notion that raw milk is safe to consume. It’s not that safe, folks. There have been more than a dozen outbreaks of food born illness (E.Coli and Listeria in most cases) linked to raw milk consumption. If you want to drink it, fine. Knock yourself out with your raw milk consumption, but don’t go around telling people it’s completely safe. I am completely dumbfounded by the parents who give their children under 2 years of age raw milk. You don’t give honey to a child under 2, why raw milk?

  • Charlie L
  • Joe

    Again I say what the Servsafe manual says regarding foodborne illness. It says that most foodborne illness is caused by foodservice employees who fail to properly wash their hands and thereby spread pathogens via food to customers. Secondly foodborne illness is caused by improperly cooked foods such as turkey and beef.

    Both of these are a result of human error at the end user level. By the way all food service personel are required to wash their hands per government law.

  • http://www.amber-hinds.com/ Amber @ Au Coeur

    I can’t help but think that this is exactly why a global food supply is not a good idea. Thank god for my CSA and vegetarian diet.

  • Brian

    I am not a bit surprised by this act of protection. You can eat any adulterated contaminated meat or seafood sold by any lobbyist paying company but you again cannot consume even proven beneficial raw milk, oh the milk companies pay lobbyist also. Did you know that you can legally eat contaminated raw oysters and sushi? Wow, what money can buy and what it cannot!!

  • Michael Bulger

    The notion that raw milk is safer, as evidenced by fewer illnesses resulting from raw milk in comparison to other foods, is flawed. Here is why: Raw milk is consumed by far fewer people than ground beef, spinach, etc. The comparison is not legitimate, in regards to the likelihood of individual illness resulting from personal consumption, unless the data has been adjusted for the likelihood that an individual will be exposed to raw milk.

    That seems to be beside the point in this instance. I think Joe did a good job of staying on topic, although I would argue that forcing the end-user to shoulder the full responsibility of foodborne illness is an unreasonable expectation. ServSafe is a certification for food service employees. The average supermarket consumer is likely not exposed to that type of educational program or training regarding food safety.

    In this case, the meat had been contaminated prior to being received by the cook. A serious attempt to avert future tragedies would involve efforts to ensure that dangerous pathogens are not shipped or sold, and do not reach the cook, via contaminated products.

    A relevant and popular phrase is, “In the first place, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

  • Charlie L

    Michael-

    If I remember the raw milk data correctly, a percentage was derived by dividing the number of illnesses attributed to raw milk consumption over a 10 or 11 year span versus the number of people who consumed raw milk over the same number of years. Even taking into account that raw milk is more tightly regulated (or at least more enforced) than other foods, this makes for a valid comparison on which to assess raw milk as relatively safer than other foods.

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  • Joanne Rigutto

    Marion, I just wanted to correct something. You say in your article that the E. coli strain that caused the food bourne illness outbreak in Germany wasn’t known until last spring.

    That’s incorrect. That strain of E. coli has been known for years, at least according to the reporting by ProMed Mail. It’s just that it’s been a common strain in undeveloped and under developed countries, not the more developed ones.

  • Michael Bulger

    Charlie L-

    I went ahead and looked at the data from your link. The author has compared the illnesses from raw milk to the combined total illnesses from all other foods. I will leave you to ponder why the author felt it necessary to make such a comparison.

    It hardly suggests that raw milk is “safe”, unless you exclude the comparative risk of individual foods from your definition of “safe”. Are you statistically more likely to fall ill from a glass of raw milk than a turkey burger? More likely to get sick from raw milk or raw spinach? The author did not explore this type of comparison. He lumped the turkey and spinach with the ground beef, eggs, strawberries, and every other food under the sun.

    Raw milk consistently causes a disproportionate number of illness, especially compared to its alternative (pasteurized milk). In 2010, raw dairy caused 102 illnesses, while pasteurized caused 23 illnesses. This is despite the fact that a very high percentage of dairy products are pasteurized.

    Raw milk remains, specifically, a risky food. It is hardly a premise worth debating, as the facts are so clear.

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  • Jan Grover

    You quote Bill Marler and his Food Safety News (FSN) several times in this posting, but FSN isn’t listed among the links on your site. Is this an oversight? I find FSN a useful resource for news and analysis of food safety issues as they develop.

  • Mike Fernandez

    Read with interest your “Food Politics” blog about the turkey recall.

    The story actually broke with CDC reporting illnesses on its website Monday, August 1. The illnesses were culled together from reports from state public health officials. It reported that 77 persons in 26 states were infected by Salmonella Heidelberg. The report also stated that among 51 ill persons with available information, 25 reported consuming ground turkey (The data has since been updated)
    ( http://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/heidelberg/080111/index.html ).

    That report and an inquiry from a state public health official in Oregon, spurred Cargill to launch its own inquiry which ultimately led to its voluntary recall of its ground turkey and a shutdown of its Springdale, Arkansas line by Wednesday, August 3, even without definitive information that cases cited were directly linked to Cargill product, yet with real concern for public health.

    Cargill does test and is committed to operating within the guidelines of USDA. I’m not certain that the issue though is one of industry size or “power.” Companies like Cargill have no interest in seeing people get sick. It does not help consumers, our customers or our company reputation to have people become ill as a result of our products. The issue is what is the right balance of testing, public health, safety, tolerance for bacteria (given that an internal temperature of 165 ˚F and above is deemed to be sufficient to kill bacteria) , dependency on appropriate handling and cooking, willingness and comfort with methods like irradiation to kill bacteria, and product affordability. How all that comes together is key.

    Thanks for your continued advocacy for safe and healthy food.

    All the best,

    Mike Fernandez
    Corporate Vice President – Corporate Affairs
    Cargill

  • Kim M.

    Many people have suggested that the solution to this problem is to cook meat to 160+ degrees. That may kill the bacteria but I have a problem with the concept of eating meat that has poop in it regardless of whether it does or does not have live bacteria in it. When did we lower our standards of acceptable food to include meat with poop in it?

  • http://www.jakesfarm.com Chris Sawyer

    I can’t help but think of the growers whose blood, sweat, and tears went into producing all those turkeys. I am a grower and have hunted wild game for subsistence while living in the bush in Alaska. I grew up around folks who butchered their own hogs and cows. Our butchering was far from ‘sanitary’, but no one got sick.
    These issues that surround this particular recall are protecting people from their own responsiblity to cook these products correctly. I don’t care how careful Cargill is, I have to assume that if a human has anything at all to do with the processing there will be a mistake made from time to time. It’s my job to use the best current knowledge when cooking my food.
    Do you recall mayonaise because someone left it out in the sun after being opened or spread on a sandwhich for an inappropriate amount of time?
    The current food safety climate is seriously affecting the bottom line of our farm and other small farms all while requiring procedures and processes that probably are not all that effective in making 100% safe salad greens. In spite of the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, lettuce and the like continues to be recalled…. after it has passed extensive controls and practices in production.
    It’s my belief that humans growing up today do not have the same sort of immune systems our ancestors did. Perhaps we need to focus on building immune systems in our children instead of blaming our food producers when they do the best possible job they can to assure the delivery of a clean, safe, and wholesome product.