The timing of the ground turkey decision illustrates the dilemma for federal food safety regulators.
The massive ground turkey recall that Cargill Inc. announced this week is raising questions about whether federal food safety regulators should have moved faster to limit a nationwide salmonella outbreak.
The recall involves ground turkey produced as early as February, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture had indications going back to at least July 20 that the culprit might be a Cargill plant in Arkansas.
"Given the facts as we know them, [regulators] should have pulled the trigger on a recall at least two weeks ago," said Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer who specializes in food safety cases. "That being said, it's always a difficult balance [for regulators] to get it right."
The recall that Minnetonka-based Cargill announced late Wednesday covers 36 million pounds of ground turkey, one of the biggest U.S. meat recalls. It's linked to a particularly virulent strain of salmonella that has infected 78 people in 26 states and led to one death.
The timing of the recall highlights a dilemma for the nation's food regulators over when to go public with recall information. Go too late, and public health could suffer. Go too early and make a mistake, and a corporation or industry's reputation could unduly suffer.
"Part of the problem is the absence of clear guidelines about when to go public," said Doug Powell, a food safety expert at Kansas State University who also felt that the recall process was slow with the ground turkey.
Food regulators appeared to become more conservative after a big salmonella outbreak in 2008, Powell said. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration first linked it to tomatoes, only to find out later that jalapeno peppers were the most likely cause. The tomato industry cried foul after it got crushed financially.
In Sacramento County, Calif., where a woman older than 65 died in June from the latest outbreak, the county's health officer brought up another factor bedeviling food regulators these days: budget cutting.
Dr. Glennah Trochet said her department now responds more slowly to outbreaks, sometimes delaying investigations a week or two. Public health workers often aren't available to interview possible victims. She suspects other agencies face the same constraints. "If you want rapid response, you need to have the resources to do rapid response," Trochet said.
Slow at the start
The salmonella outbreak linked to Cargill ground turkey began in early March. Chris Braden, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's director of foodborne diseases, said on Thursday that it was a slowly building outbreak in the beginning.
After recognizing an "unusual clustering" of Salmonella Heidelberg cases, the CDC began investigating on May 23, Braden said. About the same time, routine surveillance by a federal food monitoring system found the same strain of Salmonella Heidelberg in ground turkey in stores.
The monitoring service found four positive samples, one each in April, May, June and July, Braden said. Those four samples were traced to Cargill's Arkansas plant, he said, though he didn't elaborate on when.
David Goldman, a public health administrator in the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, told reporters that by July 20 or 21, the agency had traced back two cases from the salmonella outbreak to Cargill's Arkansas plant. A third traceback to the same plant was confirmed last week.
Late Friday, the USDA put out a public warning about salmonella dangers in ground turkey, without naming the suspected source. Recalls are often initiated when food regulators tell a company they suspect it's the source of an outbreak.
Fred Pritzker, a Minneapolis attorney who specializes in food safety cases, said the length of time between the outbreak's commencement and the recall indicates a "breakdown" in Cargill's safety procedures. "The whole idea is you are supposed to detect the problem before people get sick."
But Cargill spokesman Mike Martin said the company "does not ignore any potential issues related to foodborne illness. There's no upside to that." Martin said the company acted quickly on the recall, "as soon as we had the information available to us."
A lack of coordination?
Sarah Klein, staff attorney for the nonprofit watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the CDC focused on ground turkey six weeks ago, then backed off, only to refocus on it later in the investigation.
"It seems like the CDC was not giving USDA some very clear indication where the problem was," she said. "It seems like the investigation has been fairly confusing."
In a news release Thursday, Klein's group said "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."
Salmonella usually causes diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever, and it can be life- threatening to people with weakened immune systems. In this case, 22 people have been hospitalized including one in Minnesota, more than would be expected for an outbreak of its size, Braden said.
One possible reason: This strain of Salmonella Heidelberg is resistant to several commonly used antibiotics, which can lead to "treatment failure," Braden said.
For at least five years, the CDC has been warning of growing antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella. In 2006, the agency reported increasing rates of resistance in several strains, including two that were resistant to multiple drugs. It has blamed the problem on the use of antibiotics to promote the growth of food animals.
"We used to say that antibiotic-resistant pathogens were an emerging public health threat, and I think it's clear that they have emerged," said Klein, whose group has unsuccessfully petitioned for stricter USDA rules to reduce such pathogens in ground meat.