The CDC weighed in today on the Salmonella Heidleberg outbreak linked to ground turkey. 77 ill in 26 states, 1 death, and the strain of Heidelberg is antibiotic resistant. The statement goes on to give an obligatory consumer warning:
On July 29, 2011 USDA-FSIS released a public health alert for frozen or fresh ground turkey products. This alert 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. The alert advises that, 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); therefore, it is important that the final temperature of 165 °F must be reached for safety. The alert recommends that consumers not rely on the cooking time for each side of the patty, but use a food thermometer.
Consumer food handling practices are undoubtedly important. Then again, last year, USDA FSIS analayzed 873 samples of ground turkey for the presence of Salmonella, finding that 10.2%, compared to 10.7% in 2009 (608 samples) and 15.4% in 2008 (876 samples), were positive. 1,444 samples from whole turkeys generated positives in 4.6% of specimens.
So we can assume that more than a few turkey carcasses are contaminated by Salmonella, and that the contamination remains on many products made from these carcasses when sold at retail. With all that contamination, why not more outbreaks linked to turkey and what is made from it?
Not all of these consumers screwed up at the same time. More likely, it’s just extremely difficult, even if manufacturers instructions are followed, to rid a prepared meal of contamination when the contamination on the meat is widespread, as it would have to be to cause 77 illnesses and a death in 26 states in a relatively short span of time. Keep in mind that some estimates put the actual number of illnesses in a Salmonella outbreak at as many as 38 times the number of confirmed cases. If true, the contamination problem that caused this outbreak allowed contaminated finished product to reach 2,926 people.