California death, 76 illnesses linked to ground turkeyThe government is scrambling to find the source of a salmonella outbreak likely linked to ground turkey that has killed one person and sickened dozens more.
By: Lindsey Tanner and Mary Clare Jalonick, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The government is scrambling to find the source of a salmonella outbreak likely linked to ground turkey that has killed one person and sickened dozens more.
Finding the source of an outbreak hasn't been easy; the government has been chasing the illnesses for months. The Agriculture Department, which oversees meat safety, said it is still investigating who produced the meat, and the department hasn't initiated a recall.
California state health officials said Tuesday that the one death was in Sacramento County. Seventy-six people in 26 states have been made sick from the same strain of the disease.
The illnesses date back to March, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday that cultures of ground turkey from four retail locations between March 7 and June 27 showed contamination with the same strain of salmonella, though those samples were not specifically linked to the illnesses.
Though the government would not comment, a spokesman for the Minnesota-based meat company Cargill said Tuesday that it had been contacted by the Agriculture Department as part of the investigation.
A spokesman for another large, Minnesota-based producer of ground turkey, Hormel, said Tuesday that the company had not been contacted by USDA about the current investigation.
The silence so far from government officials may be attributed to USDA rules that make it harder to investigate and recall salmonella-tainted poultry. Because salmonella is common in poultry, it is not illegal for meat to be tainted with the pathogen. Officials must directly link the salmonella illnesses with a certain producer or establishment, which is difficult to do because people don't always remember what they ate or where they bought it.
In this case, it appears that officials haven't been able to prove the link between the samples of salmonella they found — even though they are the same strain — and the 77 people who were sickened. The Food Safety and Inspection Service sent out an alert about the illnesses late last week telling consumers to properly cook their turkey, which can decrease the chances of salmonella poisoning. But the department has not given consumers any further warnings about the source of the tainted meat.
Art Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, said the government's handling of the outbreak raises ethical questions about why the public wasn't warned sooner.
"You've got to protect the public health. That's their first and primary value — not industry, not any other goal. They have to warn as quickly as they think there's reasonable evidence for concern," Caplan said.
CDC spokeswoman Lola Russell said Tuesday it can take three to four weeks to confirm a single case. Identifying an outbreak can take considerably longer than that when cases of foodborne illness occur sporadically, in several states, as has happened in the current outbreak, she said.
The CDC estimates that 50 million Americans each year get sick from food poisoning, including about 3,000 who die. Salmonella causes most of these cases and federal health officials say they've made virtually no progress against it.
The most common symptoms of salmonella are diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever within eight hours to 72 hours of eating a contaminated product. It can be life-threatening to some with weakened immune systems.
Tanner reported from Chicago. Associated Press writer Shaya Tayefe Mohajer in Los Angeles contributed to this report.