Image: ground turkey
Paul Sakuma  /  AP
This ground turkey from the company Cargill, packaged with the Kroger label, is part of a massive recall of 36 million pounds of the meat. All of the packages recalled include the code "Est. P-963" on the label, the USDA said.
Image: JoNel Aleccia
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
msnbc.com
updated 8/4/2011 8:45:25 PM ET 2011-08-05T00:45:25

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials suspected as early as July 18 that samples of ground turkey tied to nationwide salmonella infections came from meat giant Cargill Inc., but it took two weeks to gather enough information to urge a recall, an expert said Thursday.

"We need to be sure everything has lined up in a way that we're convinced," said Dr. David Goldman, assistant administrator for the Office of Public Health Science for the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Cargill issued a voluntary recall of 36 million pounds of fresh and frozen ground turkey on Wednesday after evidence showed the company's Springdale, Ark., plant products were tied to a death and 77 other salmonella infections nationwide.

Late Thursday, California health officials confirmed the death was in a woman who was older than 65.

Cargill officials said the firm was suspending production of ground turkey at the Sprindale plant until it could identify the source of contamination and fix it.

The outbreak bacteria, salmonella Heidelberg, are resistant to three common drugs, ampicillin, tetracycline and streptomycin. But they do respond to some other antibiotics, including Bactrim, health officials said.

The outbreak began in March, with sporadic cases of salmonella Heidelberg detected by the nation's foodborne illness monitoring system, said Dr. Chris Braden, director of foodborne, waterborne and environmental diseases for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But an investigation didn't begin in earnest until May 23, when it became apparent that there was an increase in that particular strain of the bacteria.

"There was an aggressive and thorough investigation," Braden said.

However, the investigation was complicated because some people became ill from ground turkey that didn't come from Cargill, or they didn't eat ground turkey at all, he added.

Information from consumers' shopper cards was key to tying ground turkey from meat giant Cargill to an outbreak of salmonella linked to one death and dozens of illnesses nationwide, said officials. The card data helped trace back three retail purchases to the Cargill facility, said Braden.

Four ground turkey samples from retail stores tested positive for salmonella Heidelberg, including three from a single manufacturing plant, CDC officials found. Two of those three were confirmed to come from Cargill on July 18, Goldman said. The third was confirmed on July 26.

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USDA first met with Cargill legal representatives last Friday to discuss the issue. They met Wednesday with corporate officials, who agreed to announce the massive recall.

Agency officials refuted suggestions that USDA dragged its feet in urging Cargill to issue a recall.

"There was no waiting," said an agency spokesman who asked not to be named. He added that USDA must make sure allegations of contamination are "iron-clad" before approaching a large producer such as Cargill.

Braden warned consumers that ground turkey has a long shelf life and that contaminated product may remain in home refrigerators and freezers. He urged consumers to check the products against the recall list on Cargill's site and to return or discard any affected product.

Products include "chubs" of fresh and frozen ground turkey meat, retail trays of ground turkey and ground turkey patties sold at grocery stores including Kroger, Safeway and Giant Eagle, according to company's recall list.

The recall, believed to be the third largest of its kind on record, was announced by Cargill Value Added Meats Retail, a subsidiary of the Wichita-based Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation. The company said it was recalling ground turkey produced at the Arkansas plant from Feb. 20 through Aug. 2.

All of the packages recalled include the code "Est. P-963" on the label, the USDA said. The packages were labeled with many different brands, including Cargill's Honeysuckle White and Kroger.

Cargill is contacting its customers to make sure they know which ground turkey products are affected by the recall. Consumers are urged to return any opened or unopened packages of ground turkey items listed on the company's recall site: www.cargill.com/turkey-recall.

Health officials said even contaminated turkey meat is safe to eat if it is properly cooked, to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, with temperature confirmed by a meat thermometer. But they also urged consumers to follow good food safety practices when using ground turkey, including washing hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling raw meat and cleaning all cutting boards and other surfaces well.

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