Thanksgiving is one of the most beloved of American holidays, one in which family and friends gather around the table to express their gratitude for life’s blessings over a large meal. At the center of this celebration, traditionally, is the turkey. An estimated 88 percent of Americans consume some 46 million turkeys each Thanksgiving, in what amounts to a virtual Black Thursday for the nation’s turkey industry. But this year, that turkey may bring with it something for which Americans will be far less thankful – salmonella, as an outbreak of the illness linked to raw turkey products has spread to 35 states.
Turkey Salmonella in Wide Range of Products
Since the turkey salmonella outbreak was first identified a year ago, 164 people have been sickened, with 63 sent to the hospital and one killed in California. In February 2018, Raw for Pets, a Minneapolis pet food manufacturer, recalled 4,000 pounds of ground turkey pet food after two children became sick when it was fed to pets in their home. One of the children suffered from a painful bone infection, requiring hospitalization. In November, Jennie-O Turkey Store recalled 91,388 pounds of raw ground turkey products after a patient who had contracted salmonella was found to have an infected package of the company’s product at home.
This particular strain of salmonella has been found in raw turkey products collected from infected people’s homes and in live turkeys in multiple states. In all, the turkey salmonella outbreak has reached 35 states, with the largest number of infections in Minnesota (17 cases), Illinois (16), California (13), New York (12), and Texas (11).
Given the range of contaminated products and sources, the turkey salmonella contamination appears to be widespread throughout the industry, though officials at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that no common supplier has been identified. Consequently, the investigation of the matter has necessarily been complex. Since February, public health officials have been interviewing infected patients, examining their grocery receipts and shopper card data, and testing turkey products in their homes.
So far, the bacterial strain has been found in 22 slaughterhouses and seven processing facilities. According to the CDC, the strain at those locations is closely related to the strain found in the infected patients, which provides more evidence that they were infected with salmonella bacteria while preparing raw turkey products.
Consumer Groups Calling for Action
Understandably, particularly in light of the impending Thanksgiving holiday, consumer groups are calling for action from federal agencies – but so far their calls have been largely rebuffed.
On November 15, the Safe Food Coalition, which includes several activists groups such as Consumer Reports and the Consumer Federation of America, sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, calling on the USDA to disclose the names of the companies that operate the slaughterhouses and processing facilities where the turkey salmonella has been found, as well as to identify the brands of turkey linked to the outbreak.
“Providing this information,” wrote the Safe Food Coalition, “would allow some consumers to avoid turkey products more likely to be contaminated with dangerous salmonella.”
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, however, has refused to carry out the Safe Food Coalition’s request. In a statement, the agency said it would be “grossly irresponsible and reckless” to name the companies or identify the brands “when a link from an establishment to an illness has not been made.”
Salmonella Safety Tips
Contaminated food and water are the main sources of salmonella infection, which causes more than one million illnesses each year. Symptoms of infection typically surface within 12 to 96 hours following initial exposure, though they can begin as long as one to two weeks later.
Common symptoms of salmonella may include the following:
- Abdominal Pain.
- Loss of Appetite.
- Blood in the Stool.
While most people who are infected with salmonella recover within a week without receiving treatment, serious cases, including those resulting in meningitis or infections of the bloodstream, may require hospitalization. Infections can be treated with most of the commonly used antibiotics, though the CDC warns that samples from the current turkey salmonella outbreak have shown varying levels of antibiotic resistance.
The best policy, of course, is to avoid contracting salmonella entirely. With this in mind, health officials advise consumers to:
- Handle raw turkey carefully;
- Wash hands, cutting boards, and any utensils that have touched raw turkey; and
- Cook the turkey thoroughly before ingesting it.
We here at GWC Law wish you and yours a very Happy (and very healthy) Thanksgiving.