PUBLIC HEALTH
September 10, 2011

Salmonella, Lessons from the August Outbreak

Is the flurry of outbreaks this year the result of food production issues or a breakdown in regulation?

According to a recent update by the CDC, the ongoing outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg has now infected a reported 111 people in 31 states from California to New York, up from 76 cases the previous week. One death has been reported.

Salmonella enteridis bacteria can cause fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea. Symptoms tend to last four to seven days. Because milder cases of Salmonella are rarely reported, the actual number of infections in any outbreak is almost certainly much higher.

There were six food-borne outbreaks reported in 2010, two from alfalfa sprouts.

This is the fifth food-borne Salmonella outbreak of 2011. Previous outbreaks were traced to cantaloupe, turkey burgers, alfalfa sprouts and papayas. There were six food-borne outbreaks reported in 2010, two from alfalfa sprouts.

Some experts claim that Salmonella outbreaks are an inevitable consequence of the nation's food production system, where most food is produced industrially and consumed at a distant location. Others claim that Salmonella outbreaks can be avoided by improving food sanitation during production and inspections afterwards.

In either case, the best protection for consumers against Salmonella and other food-borne pathogens is proper handling, storage and cooking of meat and poultry. This includes prompt refrigeration after purchase, keeping uncooked meat or poultry away from other foods and thoroughly washing hands and utensils that have come into contact with uncooked meat or poultry.

The recent outbreak, which began in March, has been traced to ground turkey manufactured by Cargill Inc. On August 3, The Minnesota-based firm recalled 36 million pounds of possibly contaminated ground turkey produced at its Springdale, Arkansas plant. All production has been suspended at the Springdale plant until the source of the contamination is found and addressed. No contamination has been found so far at Cargill's three other turkey-processing plants, which are still operational.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that most contaminated products have been removed from supermarket shelves, but people should check their homes for any recalled ground turkey products and discard them. To see a list and pictures of recalled products, click here. Many of the recalled ground turkey products bear the number P963 in the packing code at the edge of the package. This number identifies the product as being manufactured at the Springdale plant.

The CDC stresses the importance of cooking ground turkey to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit and measuring this with a meat thermometer. This will kill all bacteria. Following the cooking instructions on the package may not be sufficient to reach 165 degrees, since the cooking time needed will depend on the starting temperature of the turkey (refrigerated vs. frozen) and the method used to cook it. The CDC also stresses that the color of cooked poultry isn't always a reliable indicator of its internal temperature.

The CDC has more specific information and updates on the Salmonella outbreak at its website, CDC.gov.

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