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Cargill Turkey Linked to Salmonella Sparks Second-Biggest U.S. Meat Recall

Cargill Inc. is pulling back almost 36 million pounds (16,300 metric tons) of ground turkey -- one of the biggest recalls in U.S. history -- after a salmonella outbreak linked to one death and more than 70 illnesses in 26 states.

The Cargill Meat Solutions unit halted ground-turkey output at the Springdale, Arkansas, plant that may have produced tainted meat from Feb. 20 to Aug. 2, Wayzata, Minnesota-based Cargill said yesterday in a statement. The recall was prompted by an internal investigation and information from the government and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The recall, following a disease outbreak that began in March, was the result of a “painstaking” investigation, Dr. David Goldman, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Service and Inspection Service, told reporters today in a conference call. The CDC’s Dr. Chris Braden said the outbreak was “slowly building in the beginning.”

Production of ground turkey was suspended at Cargill’s Springdale plant based on information presented to the company on July 29, though no definite source of the outbreak has been found, Steve Willardsen, the president of Cargill’s turkey- processing business, said in an e-mailed statement. The company’s other three U.S. turkey-processing plants will remain in operation.

One Fatality

Braden said 78 illnesses connected to ground-turkey were reported from March 1 through Aug. 3. The one death reported among those affected by the salmonella Heidelberg bacteria was in Sacramento County, California, according to the CDC. Michigan and Ohio reported the most cases as of Aug. 1, 10 each, the CDC said. Texas had nine, Illinois seven and California six.

“It is regrettable that people may have become ill from eating one of our ground-turkey products and, for anyone who did, we are truly sorry,” Willardsen said.

The illnesses have prompted calls for tighter regulation of the U.S. food supply. Poultry needs to be checked for the antibiotic-resistant strain of the bacteria blamed in the outbreak, said the Atlanta-based CDC, which in May petitioned the government to require such testing. Future infections are likely without stepped-up federal monitoring, according to Sarah Klein, the Washington-based organization’s food-safety attorney.

“This outbreak represents the urgency of the situation,” Klein said yesterday in a telephone interview. “We need to take a proactive approach.”

Checking Turkeys

The investigation by closely held Cargill, the biggest U.S. agricultural company, includes looking at whether the salmonella was brought into its Springdale plant by the turkeys, which came from more than 180 contract growers in Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma, according to Mike Martin, a spokesman.

Sections of the plant that produce whole birds, sausage, drumsticks and bone-in breastmeat continue to operate, Martin said by telephone from Wichita, Kansas.

“We are monitoring the salmonella counts, and we are not seeing anything on that side that’s problematic,” Martin said.

Supermarket-chain owner Safeway Inc. (SWY) said some of the recalled product was packaged as “Safeway Fresh Ground Turkey” and sold at its Randalls and Tom Thumb stores in Texas. Those outlets are voluntarily participating in the recall, the Pleasanton, California-based company said in a news release. None of its other operations are affected, Safeway said.

Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. (KR), the largest U.S. grocery-store chain, said it has removed the recalled products from its shelves and asked customers to return products with the Honeysuckle and Kroger Ground Turkey labels with “use or freeze by” dates from Feb. 20 to Aug. 23.

Biggest Recalls

The USDA’s Goldman said the recall was the third-largest in U.S. history, although he did not name the other two. According to a 2010 study by the University of Minnesota, the largest meat recall in U.S. history was in 2008, when Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. pulled back 143 million pounds of beef, according to USDA records and a 2010 study by the University of Minnesota. Westland/Hallmark had allowed potentially sick “downer” cattle into the food supply.

The next largest had been the 35 million pounds of frozen, ready-to-eat meat products recalled by Thorn Apple Valley Inc. in 1999 because of concern the meat was contaminated with listeria, according to the study.

Goldman is the assistant administrator of the Office of Public Health Science with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Braden is the director of the Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases with the CDC.

‘Short-Term Memory’

Cargill’s recall may cause short-term weakness in demand for turkey products, Karl Skold, an economist and the former head of commodity procurement for Omaha, Nebraska-based ConAgra Foods Inc., said in a telephone interview. Consumers tend to have a “fairly short-term memory,” he said.

“Once it’s removed and the shelves are restocked, most people will go back to buying it,” Skold said. Initially, demand for other products like ground beef or ground chicken may improve as consumers substitute those meats for turkey, he said.

Salmonella bacteria are common to poultry and can be eliminated with proper cooking practices. In a July 29 public- health alert, the USDA reminded consumers that ground turkey should always be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit (74 degrees Celsius) to kill food-borne bacteria, including salmonella.

Consumer Education

Reminding consumers of the need to properly cook turkey, which eliminates salmonella risk, is appropriate for the USDA to do, said Sherrie Rosenblatt, a spokeswoman for the National Turkey Federation based in Washington.

Consumer awareness and the current regulation system puts “the proper framework” in place for food safety, said Rosenblatt, whose organization includes Cargill, Kraft Foods Inc. (KFT) and Butterball LLC, the unit of Maxwell Farms LLC and Seaboard Corp. (SEB) that’s the biggest U.S. turkey producer.

Salmonella bacteria are the most frequently reported cause of foodborne sickness, according to the USDA. The pathogen causes an estimated 1.4 million cases of illness a year, with an estimated 400 deaths, according to the CDC.

The initial symptoms of salmonella poisoning are usually diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps. Most people recover without treatment. In some cases, hospitalization is necessary, and an infection can be deadly if not treated promptly with antibiotics. The Heidelberg strain of the bacteria is antibiotic resistant.

Older adults, infants and people with impaired immune systems are more likely to have a severe illness.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Bjerga in Washington at abjerga@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steve Stroth at sstroth@bloomberg.net

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