Federal officials urged stores and consumers Thursday to check any ground turkey they have on their shelves to make sure it is not among the products being recalled because of a nationwide salmonella outbreak.
“Ground turkey has a long shelf life, so contaminated turkey may be on shelves at home,” said Chris Braden of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during a briefing.
On Wednesday, the Agriculture Department and Cargill announced it was recalling 36 million pounds of fresh and frozen ground turkey produced by the Minnesota-based company’s Springdale, Ark., plant between Feb. 20 and Aug. 2. The turkey was possibly contaminated with a strain of salmonella now linked to 78 illnesses and one death in the United States.
The recall is the third-largest meat recall on record, according to David Goldman of the Agriculture Department.
The company also suspended production at the facility “until it is able to to determine the source” of the contamination and “take corrective actions.”
The turkey was sold under several brand names, including Honeysuckle White, Riverside Ground Turkey, Natural Lean Ground Turkey, Fit & Active Lean Ground Turkey, Spartan Ground Turkey and Shady Brook Farms Ground Turkey Burgers. The recall also includes products packaged under the HEB, Safeway, Kroger, Randall’s, Tom Thumb and Giant Eagle grocery store brands.
The codes on the recalled packages include “Est. P-963.”
The illnesses have occurred in 26 states between March 1 and Aug. 1, according to the CDC, which is helping to investigate the outbreak.
The illnesses are being caused by the so-called Heidelberg strain of salmonella, which is resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics, making cases difficult to treat.
Twenty-two, or 38 percent, of the victims have been hospitalized, which is higher than usual for salmonella, Braden said. That may be due to the organism’s resistance.
“This antibiotic resistance may increase the risk of hospitalization and can sometimes contribute to treatment failure,” Braden said.
The most cases have occurred in Michigan and Ohio, which each have reported 10. Texas has reported nine illnesses; Illinois, seven; California, six; and Pennsylvania, five. No cases have been reported in Virginia, Maryland or the District.
Investigators noticed clusters of salmonella as early as in May during routine monitoring of reports on salmonella and other foodborne illnesses. And they detected salmonella in ground turkey in as early as April. But officials did not issue the recall until investigator traced several of the cases in Ohio and Michigan to turkey produced at the Cargill plant late last month, officials said during a briefing Thursday.
Officials have not determined how the contamination may have occurred at the plant.
Food safety advocates criticized federal officials for not alerting the public quickly enough.
“I think the government’s handling of this outbreak and recall has been pathetic,” said William D. Marler, a Seattle attorney who represents food poisoning victims.
Goldman and Braden defended how they have handled the outbreak, saying it wasn’t until last week that they had accumulated enough evidence to link the illnesses to the Cargill plant. They noted that some of the cases have occurred among people with no history of consuming ground turkey or purchasing turkey that originated at the plant.
“There was an aggressive and thorough investigation that came together,” Goldman said.
Industry officials tried to reassure the public.
“The U.S. turkey supply has an excellent safety record,” said American Meat Institute Executive Vice President James H. Hodges in a statement Officials stressed that even contaminated ground turkey is safe to eat if it is cooked to 165 degrees. But raw meat must handled properly before it is cooked, officials said. People should 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 to 72 hours of eating a contaminated product. It can be life-threatening to some with weakened immune systems.