First reports of salmonellosis appeared in March, signs of an outbreak emerged in May – but it took over two more months before anything was officially announced and the source of the problem was found and a recall was issued. Many people wonder why it took so long.

The USDA (US Department of Agriculture) asked Cargill Value Added Meats Retail to recall 36 million pounds of ground turkey last Wednesday, nearly five months after the first illness appeared. This was after one death in Sacramento, California, and at least 77 illnesses that spanned 26 states.

Initially, health authorities and inspectors said they wanted to be 100% sure about the source of the salmonella outbreak before asking Cargill to initiate a massive recall, which according to various media sources is the third largest meat recall in history.

Dr. Christopher Braden, a CDC epidemiologist, said the investigation was thorough and aggressive.

Many factors can slow things down. People who became sick may not remember well what they had been eating, researchers may be given wrong data by patients which they pursue, have to abandon..etc. Current procedure rules make the procedure slow and lengthy.

Even so, some experts believe the authorities should have approached the turkey meat processing company (companies) beforehand. Others say the public had a right to know that a thorough and aggressive investigation was underway and the reasons for it – if the number one priority is to protect public health.

Congresswoman Rosa L. DeLauro wrote:

“This massive recall is yet another example of how critical it is to fully fund and support the agencies that are responsible for protecting our food supply. It has been over four months since the first illness was identified and yet we just identified the facility and we still do not know definitively where the contamination occurred. In addition, the simple fact that this outbreak involves a foodborne bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics heightens the risk to the health of American consumers. The length of time already passed and the volume of this recall are outrageous, and it has already claimed the life of one American.

We must invest in our public health infrastructure in order to identify outbreaks earlier, better protect the public health, and empower our food safety agencies to enable faster, accurate traceback. These agencies need the funding to fulfill their mission of protecting American consumers.

But the House majority has slashed funding for the FDA and USDA, choosing to preserve tax cuts for the wealthy over investing in and improving our food safety system. By cutting their funding, we have limited their effectiveness and asked FDA and USDA to do more with less, and the impact of these cuts is starkly clear with this most recent recall. It is only because of the hard work of state and local health departments, the USDA, and CDC using creative traceback techniques involving the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System that we were able to identify this outbreak and trace it to a single plant.

According to the USDA, nobody was sure about the source of the outbreak until last month, when a leftover sample of turkey meat was found in the home of an infected victim. Until then, several companies were being investigated.

Some lab tests from samples taken from Cargill’s plant in Arkansas had identified turkey meat contamination with the same strain of salmonella – however, they were not specifically linked to the cases of salmonellosis. Even so, some routine salmonella testing last year showed the salmonella strain at that plant.

Salmonella is so common in poultry meat that it is not illegal to sell it if it is tainted. Authorities advise people to cook the meat to 165 F and to be careful when preparing it. If certain hygiene guidelines are followed, contaminated poultry meat is usually safe to eat.

The USDA, on its website writes:

“To prevent salmonellosis and other foodborne illnesses, wash hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling raw meat and poultry, and cook poultry – including ground turkey – to 165° F, as determined with a food thermometer.”

This particular strain – Salmonella Heidelberg is resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics.

Put simply – the current research process may be thorough, but it is also lengthy and very slow. Authorities have to confirm their results before informing the public. The CDC had to interview sick patients and carry out home inspections in order to find out what the source of the salmonella was. In this case, they eventually managed to isolate three patients, and with the use of shopper-data cards, trace the samples back – this eventually led them to the Cargill turkey meat processing facility in Springdale, Arkansas.

Authorities also spent a long time determining whether the salmonella concentrations in the ground turkey were higher than normal. A considerable proportion of legally sold poultry meat is contaminated with salmonella anyway.

Written by Christian Nordqvist