A truckload of live turkeys arrives Thursday at the Cargill turkey processing… (Danny Johnston, AP )
A day after one of the nation's largest food recalls, federal health officials warned the public that frozen turkey bought weeks or even months ago and stored in a home freezer could be contaminated with a deadly strain of salmonella.
"We're urging people to check packaging on any ground turkey in their homes and not to eat ground turkey that was part of the recall," Chris Braden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases, said Thursday. "Ground turkey has a long shelf life."
The warning comes a day after food giant Cargill Inc. launched a voluntary recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey that health officials believe is contaminated and may have caused the death of one Californian and the illness of 77 others throughout the country. The recall applies to turkey products produced at the company's Springdale, Ark., plant since Feb. 20.
"It's possible there are other cases that have not yet been reported," Braden added.
Health authorities linked turkey processed at Cargill's Arkansas plant to the outbreak in 26 states of Salmonella Heidelberg, a strain of salmonella that is resistant to most commonly prescribed antibiotics.
The turkey was sold under several brand names, including "Honeysuckle White," "Kroger," "Shady Brooks Farms," "Giant Eagle," "Fit & Active," "Riverside" and "Safeway Fresh." A full list of the brand names can be found at http://www.cargill.com/turkey-recall.
The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service issued a public alert last week, warning about an outbreak of salmonella-related illness from eating ground turkey. But it wasn't until Wednesday that the agency contacted Cargill, after confirming the tainted turkey came from the company's Arkansas plant.
In response to the news, Cargill announced the voluntary recall and promised to stop production of ground turkey from the plant until a source of the contamination was found.
Cargill has asked consumers with questions about recalled ground turkey products to call the company's consumer relations department at (888) 812-1646.
Salmonella can cause fever, diarrhea and abdominal pain and can be fatal to young children, older people and those with compromised immune systems.
Dr. Pascal J. Imperato, a public health expert at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., said the number of cases in the outbreak could be much higher than reported because salmonella can cause a range of symptoms, including mild reactions that don't require medical attention.
He urged people to cook turkey thoroughly before eating and to wash their hands and cutting boards, knives and other utensils that come in contact with raw meat with soap and water.
David Goldman, assistant administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said the recall was likely the third-largest recall on record.
The nation's largest food recall came in 2008, when the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. recalled 143 million pounds of beef following an investigation into animal cruelty at its slaughtering plant in Chino. The meat included 50 million pounds that had been sent to school lunch programs.
During a conference call Thursday, representatives for the USDA and the CDC explained how they began investigating clusters of salmonella poisoning in May and linked at least three of the illnesses to ground turkey from Cargill in late July, leading to a USDA health alert July 29.
But Goldman said health officials didn't have enough evidence to bring their findings to Cargill until Wednesday. "We have to make a determination that we have enough information to take forward to the company," he said.
Despite funding cuts to the USDA the past few years, Goldman and Braden dismissed suggestions that budget cuts have made it harder for federal health inspectors to detect and warn the public about such outbreaks.
"We could always expand the resources at CDC to potentially tackle more of these better, but we do what we can, and we feel like this was a successfully and intensively investigated outbreak," Braden said.