In 2010, the Cargill turkey plant that just recalled 36 million pounds of ground turkey had 3 positive tests for Salmonella Heidelberg, which is the strain the public learned last Friday was linked to 78 illnesses and one death in 26 states.  The information about the three 2010 positives came in a press conference yesterday, with Chris Braden, the Director of the Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases at CDC, and Dr. David Goldman, the Assistant Administrator for the Office of Public Health Science at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.  I do not know whether these 3 positives came from an FSIS testing program, or Cargill’s own, or whether the 2010 positives were a match to the strain of Salmonella Heidleberg responsible for the current outbreak and recall.

In 2011, as has been widely reported, 4 retail samples of ground turkey, all of which were produced at the Arkansas Cargill plant that issued the recall, were positive for Salmonella Heidleberg–and these positive samples we know were the exact same strain of Heidleberg implicated in the current outbreak. 

Is it safe to assume that the three 2010 positives were the same strain of Salmonella Heidleberg as the 4 retail samples from 2011 and the 78 people who were sickened or died?  Maybe not, in which case, under the best case scenario, the Cargill plant involved and FSIS should have had a pretty good indication that there was a problem at the plant.  It will be interesting to find out both the timing of these 3 positives from 2010, and what response and corrective measures they triggered by the plant and regulators.  Of course, that begs the question whether any corrective measures would be required at all, either under Cargill’s HACCP or the law, as the feds do not consider Salmonella in meat an adulterant.  Read Bill Marler’s blog from this morning, courtesy of Denis Stearns: “Butz, Supreme Beef and FSIS’s Salmonella Policy–A Bit(e) of History.” 

In yesterday’s press conference, the answers given in response to questions from Brian Hartman (ABC) were equivocal, but the reality is that Drs. Braden and Goldman may just be limited by FSIS and other agency policy on the uses and purposes of various pieces of information.  Here is an excerpt from the press conference: 

Brian Hartman: Hi, thanks for taking my question. Can you go back to the NARMS surveillance that you were doing and tell me if the facility that you traced those packages back to is the same as the Springdale, Arkansas facility we’re talking about in this outbreak, and as a follow-up to that, what happens to that information from NARMS? I know why you’re doing it, but if you find something potentially dangerous, what happens with that information? Thank you.

Chris Braden: Yes, thank you. This is Dr. Braden at CDC. So, yes, all four of the samples that we had information on were traced to the Cargill plant in Arkansas. So the other part of the question about what happens to the information. Well, we’re—our efforts are to integrate as much information as we can to inform these investigations. It is true that the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System or NARMS is a separate surveillance system. It’s not meant for outbreak investigation. But nonetheless, the data may be helpful in these investigations as we have seen in this particular circumstance. So we are engaged in trying to integrate a lot of these data in many of our questions that we ask in public health across surveillance systems.

Brian Hartman: Well, if I could ask a follow-up to USDA, is that information used in any way for preventative measures? You have one part of the government finding antibiotic resistant Salmonella on a product that’s in a store. Does that then- does someone from USDA then get that information and contact Cargill and is there any consideration given to some preventative measures at that point?

David Goldman: This is Dr. Goldman. Thanks for the question. As Dr. Braden pointed out, NARMS is a separate surveillance system. We certainly have a NARMS liaison that is someone within FSIS who is responsible for maintaining a relationship with the NARMS program, and its findings. But NARMS is principally designed to examine trends or changes in antimicrobial resistance among a variety of products over time. And in fact, if you were to go to their website, you can see an example of those reports. And there’s a bit of a lag both in the annual reports as well as in the current sample data. I think that was mentioned earlier, as well. There’s a bit of a lag in terms of the—it’s reporting in—near real-time. So yes, we do look at that data. Right now we are not reporting antimicrobial resistance data to the plants that we regulate. But it is part of a policy consideration here at FSIS.

Notably, Brian Hartman’s questions only reference the 4 retail positives from 2011.  Epidemiological implications for the outbreak investigation aside, the same questions must be asked, probably even more emphatically, of the 2010 samples.  Who knew about them, when, and what was done in response?  Dare we speculate, at this juncture, that those positives were the outbreak strain?  And if so, what does that add to the debate over the investigation into the speed with which various government agencies acted in response to the various stages of this outbreak/contamination problem?

More food for thought:  also yet unanswered is whether the Cargill plant was operating under one or more regulation-waivers granted under the USDA’s so-called Salmonella Initiative Program.  And, if so, does participation in this Program have anything to do with the fact that these positive test results are only now coming to the Agency’s attention?