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Cargill Turkey Recall Criticized as Officials Say Evidence Weak

U.S. officials didn’t press Cargill Inc. to recall turkey potentially tainted by salmonella sooner because of conflicting, incomplete data, prompting consumer advocates to call for a more-aggressive approach.

Cargill pulled back almost 36 million pounds of ground turkey on Aug. 3, in the second-biggest U.S. meat recall, and halted processing of the product at its Springdale, Arkansas, plant after being presented with the results of what health officials described as a lengthy and painstaking investigation.

The probe proceeded slowly because the pace of infections, which began in March, rose gradually, and there wasn’t evidence of a “cluster” until May, Dr. David Goldman, an administrator with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, told reporters yesterday. The government’s response may have put more people at risk, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, with the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“The failure to issue a public alert earlier or to even notify the company shows a troubling lack of coordination that potentially contributed to the size and severity of the outbreak,” DeWaal, the Washington-based advocacy group’s food-safety director, said in an e-mailed statement. She called for a full review of the government’s actions.

The USDA issued a public-health alert on July 29 linking 77 illnesses to ground turkey, without mentioning Cargill.

The antibiotic-resistant Heidelberg strain pf salmonella linked to the turkey meat has sickened at least 78 people in 26 states and killed one person in California, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

‘Dissonant’ Information

By late May, the government determined there had been an outbreak and two routine Food and Drug Administration tests had found ground turkey with the same salmonella strain that was sickening people. Other evidence related to the outbreak wasn’t yet pointing to turkey as a cause, according to Dr. Chris Braden, director of the CDC’s foodborne-illness division.

“We were finding dissonant types of information that I think prevented us from acting,” Braden said. “We then had to go on to collect additional information to bring it all together.”

It took two more FDA tests in June and July, along with interviews and food purchase data to persuade investigators that turkey was behind the outbreak.

By July 21, data on grocery-store purchases from two sick people were used to connect the meat to the Cargill plant for the first time. Another traceback had a similar result by July 29, officials said. The USDA then compared information with the CDC and local health authorities before providing Cargill management with the results of the investigation on Aug. 3, Goldman said. After that, the decision to pull the meat came “within hours,” he said.

More Testing

The outbreak has prompted calls for tighter regulation of the food supply and a more aggressive approach to recalls. Poultry needs to be checked for salmonella strains before being released into the food supply, said the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which in May petitioned the government to require such testing.

The Consumer Federation of America, a Washington-based advocacy group, echoed that position.

“If you have the evidence, you have to go to the plant,” Chris Waldrop, director of the federation’s Food Policy Institute, said in a telephone interview.

Sally Greenberg of the National Consumers League in Washington said the investigators’ approach is understandable, given the effects of an improper recall on food sales and consumer confidence. “I’m not prepared to second-guess the government,” she said.

Call for Funding

More-aggressive testing would reduce the need for investigations, she said. “There’s a lot of things that can be done that would stop this from happening in the first place,” including greater food-safety funding at the state, local and national levels, she said.

Closely held Cargill, which is based in Wayzata, Minnesota, is conducting its own investigation, including 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 breast meat 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.

The largest U.S. meat recall 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.

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