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National Health Alert Issued for Ground Turkey

Food Safety News

Dan Flynn

July 31, 2011

An outbreak already infecting 77 people in 26 states with Salmonella Heidelberg prompted an unusual public health alert late Friday about the "critical importance" of safe handling of ground turkey.

The alert about all frozen and fresh ground turkey was issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) through its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which regulates meat and poultry. A public health alert not involving a specific brand or product recall is a rare action for USDA.

With the public health alert came the first notice that the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and state health departments have identified and are investigating the multistate outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg.

"The public health alert was initiated after continuous medical reports, ongoing investigations and testing conducted by various departments of health across the nation determined there is an association between consumption of ground turkey products and an estimated 77 illnesses reported in 26 states," the USDA statement says.

CDC and state health departments made the link through epidemiological investigation and pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) analysis, according to the FSIS. While CDC and the state health departments are investigating the outbreak, FSIS said it is working to determine the source of the contamination.

That indicates the agency does not have enough information to recall specific products, but is trying to guard against new illnesses by educating consumers about ground turkey in general.

Bill Marler, food-safety attorney and publisher of Food Safety News, said he found the timing of the alert, which was issued Friday at 8 p.m. EDT, somewhat perplexing. "This is classic 'release news when no one will see it.' The release, other than saying 77 people in 26 states are sick from possibly eating ground turkey, gives the consumer no information -- no manufacturer, no states named where people are ill.

"Also, from the point of view of ground turkey manufacturers, is it right to throw the entire industry under the bus?," Marler asked.

In April, FSIS did conduct a fairly large recall (54,960 pounds) of frozen, raw turkey products from Minnesota-based Jennie-O Turkey Store because of Salmonella contamination, but the serotype in that instance was Hadar, not Heidelberg. Twelve people in 10 states were sickened.

In its news release, FSIS reminds consumers of "the critical importance of following package cooking instructions for frozen or fresh ground turkey products and general food safety guidelines when handling and preparing any raw meat or poultry" and urges people to use a meat thermometer.

"In particular, while cooking instructions may give a specific number of minutes of cooking for each side of the patty in order to attain 165 °F internal temperature, consumers should be aware that actual time may vary depending on the cooking method (broiling, frying, or grilling) and the temperature of the product (chilled versus frozen) so it is important that the final temperature of 165 °F must be reached for safety. Please do not rely on the cooking time for each side of the patty, but use a food thermometer.

"Ground turkey and ground turkey dishes should always be cooked to 165 °F internal temperature as measured with a food thermometer; leftovers also should be reheated to 165 °F. The color of cooked poultry is not always a sure sign of its safety. Only by using a food thermometer can one accurately determine that poultry has reached a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F throughout the product. Turkey can remain pink even after cooking to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F. The meat of smoked turkey is always pink."

Consumers should also take steps to ensure that raw ground turkey and its juices do not cross contaminate other foods that won't be cooked or are already cooked. Use hot, soapy water to clean up spills on cutting boards, countertops, dishes and in sinks, and wash hands thoroughly after handling the meat.

Food contaminated with Salmonella can cause salmonellosis, one of the most common bacterial foodborne illnesses. It can be life-threatening, especially to those with weak immune systems, such as infants, the elderly and persons with HIV infection or undergoing chemotherapy.

The most common symptoms of salmonellosis are diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever within eight to 72 hours. Additional symptoms may be chills, headache, nausea and vomiting that can last up to seven days.

Salmonella Heidelberg is a common strain in the U.S. Recently associated with a number of outbreaks in nursing homes, it was also the strain involved at A & R Barbeque (also known as A & R Bar-B-Q) in Memphis, the source of an outbreak in 2009.

In Salmonella outbreaks linked to ground turkey, 26 people were sickened with Salmonella Saintpaul in 2008 after eating ground turkey at a private home in Michigan. An outbreak of Salmonella Typhimurium at a Minnesota restaurant in 2000 was linked to ground turkey; four people -- two of them food workers -- were infected.

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