Gov’t Knew About Salmonella in Cargill Meat

Salmonella was discovered at Cargill's Arkansas plant last year and at stores earlier this year through routine government inspections-long before the company's August 3 recall of 36 pounds of ground turkey-but federal rules don't allow a recall to be issued until meat is directly tied to an illness or death.

Federal officials knew that some of Cargill's turkey was contaminated with a dangerous form of salmonella-but they didn't issue a recall until earlier this month when an outbreak killed one person and sickened 77 others.

On August 3, Wayzata-based Cargill recalled 36 million pounds of fresh and frozen ground turkey made at its Springdale, Arkansas, facility.

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that a routine U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspection that took place last year turned up three samples contaminated with salmonella Heidelberg-an antibiotic-resistant strain of salmonella.

Then in April, tests by the federal government's National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS)-which examines meat samples in retail stores-uncovered salmonella Heidelberg in a package of ground turkey that came from Cargill's Arkansas plant, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Elisabeth Hagen, the USDA's top food-safety official, told the newspaper that federal rules don't treat salmonella as a poisonous contaminant in meat and allow it to be recalled unless and until that meat is directly tied to an illness or death.

NARMS inspections in May, June, and July continued to find salmonella Heidelberg in turkey from Cargill's Arkansas plant-and the agency contacted Cargill about the suspected contamination on July 29, according to The Wall Street Journal. After specific illnesses were linked to turkey from the plant, Cargill stopped ground-turkey production there.

Doug Powell, Kansas State University professor of food safety, told the newspaper that government agencies were “clearly too slow” in informing the public that there was a salmonella contamination. But USDA officials say they didn't have the authority they needed to do so.

Salmonella is most often found in meat, poultry, eggs, and milk. Much of the time, those who consume meat contaminated with it experience only mild discomfort. But salmonella Heidelberg is turning out to be significantly more dangerous, The Wall Street Journal reported.

To read more in The Wall Street Journal about the Cargill contamination, and federal laws regarding recalls and reporting to the public, click here.