CDC Reports Widespread Salmonella Outbreak From Eating Turkey

    The agency announced more illnesses in this ongoing outbreak. How to keep your holiday meal safe.

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    Raw turkey being prepped iStock-843813404

    Update: On Feb. 15, the CDC announced 63 additional victims in this outbreak, including 23 new hospitalization. The total numbers in the story have been updated accordingly.

    Just ahead of Thanksgiving, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has announced that a year-long outbreak of salmonella linked to raw turkey products is now responsible for 279 illnesses, 107 hospitalizations, and one death across 41 states. The outbreak was first reported in July, but illnesses related to it have been identified as far back as November 2017.

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    During routine testing of turkey processing facilities, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service found the same strain of salmonella that has been making people sick in 22 slaughtering facilities and seven processing establishments.

    On Wednesday, Consumer Reports’ food safety advocates called on the USDA to provide a list of affected turkey producers, suppliers, and brands. Having this information would allow consumers to better protect themselves and their families from salmonella this Thanksgiving, says Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumer Reports.

    In response, the USDA said it did not have the evidence to point to a single common supplier of turkey products and that “it would be grossly irresponsible and reckless to associate producers with an outbreak investigation, when a link from an establishment to an illness has not been made.”

    But on Thursday, the USDA announced that Jennie-O was recalling more than 147,276 pounds of fresh ground turkey with use by dates of Oct. 1 and Oct. 2 from facility “P-190” (located in Barron, Wisc.) for possible contamination with salmonella.

    Then on Dec. 21, Jennie-O recalled another 164,210 pounds of raw ground turkey products. The recalled ground turkey was sold in 1-pound, 2.5-pound and 3-pound packages labeled with establishment number “P-579” (located in Faribault, Minn.)

    Though the ground turkey should no longer be on store shelves, consumers may still have it in their freezers. If you do, you should throw it away or return it to the store for a refund, CR’s food safety experts and the USDA advise. (For more details on the recalls, see below.)

    Steven Lykken, president of Jenni-O Turkey Store, expressed concern that some people have become ill after exposure to salmonella in turkey products, and said that the turkey industry has tried to reduce salmonella contamination for many years. But he emphasized that this outbreak is not limited to his company. “This particular salmonella strain can be found in 29 different manufacturing plants from 19 different companies, according to government agencies,” he said.

    Indeed, the USDA noted that the investigation was ongoing and that additional products from other companies might be recalled.

    However, when CR asked the agency to confirm that 19 companies were involved and to identify them by name, a USDA spokesperson responded, "FSIS continues to work with the CDC and state health departments on this investigation and will provide updated information as it becomes available."

    Considering that millions of turkeys will be eaten over the holiday, the agency should release any other information it has, says CR’s Halloran. “It still hasn’t released all the names and locations of the slaughter and processing facilities where USDA has found the outbreak strain, through genetic fingerprinting. USDA should also inform the public of the brands processed at those facilities," she says. “Every turkey sold in grocery stores has the code for the processing facility on its label, which consumers could check.”

    Three members of congress—Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY—also urged the USDA to release more details on producers, suppliers, and brands. “This outbreak is just another example of the USDA putting corporate interests over the health of American families,” DeLauro said in a statement. “With Thanksgiving just one week away, the public deserves transparency from the USDA and to know if their families are being put at risk.”

    Turkey Safety Advice

    Neither government agencies nor CR’s experts are advising that you avoid turkey this year—as long as you take important precautions when handling it and cooking it.

    “It would be prudent for everyone to handle and prepare their turkey with the assumption that it could be contaminated with this disease-causing bacteria,” Halloran says, considering the seriousness of this outbreak and the lack of information about which products are affected. “Given how widespread this outbreak appears to be, this season, more than ever, it is crucial to employ the proper food safety practices when cooking your turkey.”

    Thaw turkey in the fridge, not on the kitchen counter. The bird should stay below 40° F as it thaws, to prevent the growth of any harmful bacteria that may be present. Allow 24 hours of thawing time for each 4 to 5 pounds of meat. “A 16-pound turkey will take about four days to thaw,” says CR nutritionist Ellen Klosz.

    “Put the wrapped turkey on a tray on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator,” she says. “As it thaws, some water and juice will leak out of the plastic wrapping, and you don’t want that to get all over the fridge, spreading bacteria onto surfaces and other foods.”

    A thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for one to two days if necessary, according to the USDA.

    What if you forget to take the turkey out of the freezer? You can cook it frozen, the USDA says. It will take about 50 percent longer. And once it’s in the oven and begins to thaw, you will have to remember to remove the giblet package from the inside of the turkey, using tongs or a fork.

    Don’t wash raw turkey before preparing it. This may spread any germs on the turkey around your kitchen. Instead, open the plastic wrap carefully and drain any liquid into the sink before discarding the wrapper. Pat the turkey dry, inside and out, with paper towels.

    Wash your hands frequently with hot water and soap, both during and after handling raw turkey. Be sure to thoroughly wash all countertops, cutting boards, utensils, and any other kitchen items that come into contact with raw turkey.

    Don’t stuff it. “According to the USDA, the safest way to cook stuffing is outside of the turkey,” Klosz says. Stuffing can absorb the juices from the raw turkey. If the stuffing doesn’t get hot enough (165° F), it could leave you and your guests susceptible to food poisoning—but cooking the bird until the stuffing is safe will likely lead to overcooked meat.

    Use a meat thermometer. Turkey—including ground turkey and turkey parts—must be cooked to an internal temperature of 165° F to be safe, and you can’t be sure that it has reached that temperature unless you use a meat thermometer. Other ways of testing a turkey’s doneness—such as pulling on the drumstick to see whether it wiggles easily or piercing the skin to see whether the juices run clear—are not reliable. And CR’s tests have shown that the pop-up thermometers that come with many turkeys are not 100 percent accurate.

    Test the temp in several places. Insert the meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh (not the drumstick), pushing it in about 2 inches and making sure you don’t hit a bone. Then check the thickest part of the breast and the innermost part of the wing, keeping the thermometer horizontal as you insert the probe.

    Refrigerate leftovers promptly. A cooked bird should not be left out for more than 2 hours. Any bacteria that may be present could multiply to harmful levels if the bird sits at room temperature longer than that.

    Protect your pets, too. The CDC is also recommending that people not feed their pets raw turkey, because three illnesses in this outbreak occurred in homes where pets had been fed raw turkey pet food. The Minnesota Department of Health in February alerted consumers that one pet food company had recalled some of its products because of the two cases of salmonella illness linked to pet food.

    About the Outbreak

    Turkey is one of 14 foods involved in salmonella outbreaks known to officials this year. The others occurred in products as varied as precut melon, eggs, Honey Smacks cereal, and frozen shredded coconut.

    The Jennie-O ground turkey that is being recalled has the establishment number “P-190” inside the USDA mark of inspection. The specific products are:

    • One-pound packages labeled 93% lean/7% fat with use by dates of Oct. 1 and Oct. 2.
    • One-pound packages labeled “taco seasoned ground turkey” with a use by date of Oct. 2.
    • One-pound packages labeled 85% lean/15% fat with a use by date of Oct. 2.
    • One-pound packages labeled “Italian seasoned ground turkey” with a use by date of Oct. 2.

    According to Laura Gieraltowski, Ph.D., leader of the foodborne outbreak response team at the CDC, the investigation into this salmonella outbreak has been complex.

    “We have ill people that are reporting lots of different types of turkey products with lots of different brands, and purchasing them from many different locations,” she says. People who have become ill have said they came into contact with or ate ground turkey, turkey parts (such as drumsticks or breasts), and whole turkeys.

    The National Turkey Federation, the trade association representing turkey manufacturers, told CR, “Our members are individually reviewing their salmonella control programs in all phases of turkey production as well as working collectively ... to address this and all strains of salmonella.”

    The Severity of This Strain

    It usually takes 12 to 72 hours after you’ve ingested something contaminated with salmonella to get sick. The key symptoms are diarrhea, fever, abdominal pain, and sometimes vomiting.

    The strain of salmonella implicated in the current turkey outbreak is known as the Reading strain.

    The CDC tested several samples of the bacteria from people who had gotten sick and found that some of the bacteria showed signs of being resistant to antibiotics. But the agency says that the antibiotics the bacteria were resistant to aren’t the ones usually used in treating salmonella infections. According to Gieraltowski, antibiotic resistance “doesn't really have any clinical relevance in this case.”

    Still, it’s possible for poultry to be the source of an antibiotic-resistant infection. A 2013 Consumer Reports test of ground turkey found that 83 percent of samples harbored multidrug-resistant bacteria.

    Most people recover from salmonella without treatment, but in some severe cases, if the infection spreads beyond the intestines, antibiotics are needed. Those most at risk for severe infections include young children, older adults, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems.

    Join CR and other consumers in asking the USDA to immediately make public
    which turkey producers, suppliers, and brands are involved in the outbreak.

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    Editor’s Note: This article was updated to include information on the USDA’s response to CR’s call for more information, the Jennie-O recall, and information from congressional representatives.

    Catherine Roberts

    As a science journalist, my goal is to empower consumers to make informed decisions about health products, practices, and treatments. I aim to investigate what works, what doesn't, and what may be causing actual harm when it comes to people's health. As a civilian, my passions include science fiction, running, Queens, and my cat. Follow me on Twitter: @catharob