- As of July 11, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has received reports that 90 people from 26 states have been sickened and 40 have been hospitalized in connection with a strain of salmonella linked to raw turkey. The illnesses were reported between Nov. 20, 2017, to June 29, 2018, the agency said. So far, no related deaths have been reported.
- From epidemiological and laboratory evidence, the agency concluded that raw turkey from several sources — pet food, ground turkey, turkey pieces and whole turkey — purchased from multiple stores was contaminated. The outbreak strain is resistant to all or some of six antibiotics, the agency added.
- No common supplier of raw turkey products or live turkeys has yet been identified, and the CDC said the pathogen "might be widespread in the turkey industry." The agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service have provided investigation results to turkey industry representatives and asked them how they are working to reduce salmonella contamination in both live turkeys and turkey processing facilities.
Even though illnesses linked to this salmonella outbreak were reported last fall, the CDC didn't notify the public about them until July 19. A CDC representative told Consumer Reports that the agency waited until it had a common source — raw turkey — which it could then advise consumers to avoid.
“We’re concerned that there’s widespread contamination — from live turkeys to raw turkey products that people are handling and eating,” Laura Gieraltowski, Ph.D., leader of the agency's foodborne outbreak response team, told the magazine. She added the investigation has been complex due to all the different types of turkey products sold under different brands at many locations.
Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports, questioned the long delay.
“Given that this outbreak has been continuing for nine months, it’s still surprising that the Department of Agriculture and CDC did not alert the public earlier so people would know to be especially careful with raw turkey,” said Jean Halloran, Consumers Union's director of food policy initiatives.
The National Turkey Federation told Consumer Reports that its members "are individually reviewing their salmonella control programs in all phases of turkey production as well as working collectively … to address this and all strains of salmonella."
There is no need for the public to avoid eating properly cooked turkey products, or for retailers to stop selling raw turkey products, the CDC said. However, the agency advised consumers to follow safe food preparation practices — washing their hands, not washing the turkey before cooking it, cooking turkey thoroughly to 165 degrees F. and avoiding raw pet diets — to limit exposure to salmonella infection.
Since these steps are commonly recommended to reduce pathogens in meat, poultry and other foods, it doesn't seem that turkey is more inherently risky than other meats such as ground beef or pork. Salmonella has also been found in products such as cereal, fresh produce, shell eggs, crackers and pasta salad. The CDC estimates the pathogen causes about 1.2 million illnesses every year in the U.S., along with 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths.
It's worrisome for consumers and the turkey industry that a single source for this outbreak hasn't been identified. The CDC and USDA's FSIS have a variety of scientific techniques available to track illnesses back to a specific food source, although the process takes time. The CDC said it will update the public once more information comes available about a supplier or type of raw turkey product linked to illness.
In 2015, the USDA established stricter standards for testing salmonella contamination in ground turkey and chicken, with the goal of reducing "tens of thousands of illnesses each year." The new standard sets a 13.5% maximum acceptable percent positive of salmonella in ground turkey, compared to 49.9% in the former guidelines.
Since foodborne illness outbreaks keep occurring despite tougher standards, it raises the question of whether U.S. food safety policies and practices are adequate. New procedures instituted through the Food Safety Modernization Act don't apply to meat, which is solely regulated by USDA.
Regardless of safety procedures, the notification process may also need updating. It's commendable that the CDC didn't want to frighten the public with a report about an outbreak with no clear source, but it's difficult to justify keeping this information under wraps for eight months. While there may not be undue consumer fear at this point, the sentiment could instead turn into anger. The long delay in notification leads consumers to not trust food safety institutions. It may also manifest itself in a boycott of turkey products since consumers may not be able to believe that what they buy is free of contamination.