Building models to predict and prevent Salmonella outbreaks

Researchers at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health (SPH) and College of Veterinary Medicine are working together with industry to determine how high Salmonella levels in ground turkey and ground beef have to be before they pose a threat to human health.

ground.turkey“Ultimately we are trying to better understand how to predict and prevent outbreaks,” says Craig Hedberg, SPH professor and one of the researchers working on the study, Developing a Risk Management Framework to Improve Public Health Outcomes by Enumerating Salmonella in Ground Meat and Poultry Products.

“It would be easy to say we should have no Salmonella in [meat] products, but that carries risks, too,” says Hedberg. “Meat with contamination levels too low to cause illness in people would be destroyed, and [that could lead] the industry to stop or reduce its current level of testing, which would halt the monitoring process and increase the risk of illness.”

To find a workable solution to the issue, the research team will use data from Cargill and other industry partners as well as data on past outbreaks to compare Salmonella concentrations under normal production conditions in ground meat products with levels that have been linked to the occurrence of foodborne illness outbreaks.

The team is focusing on ground meat because grinding mixes contamination throughout the product, and live bacteria can remain inside an undercooked hamburger or turkey burger.

Find the problem, fix the problem, then restart production; same salmonella again found in Cargill ground turkey

On July 29, 2011, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued a public health alert due to concerns about illnesses caused by Salmonella Heidelberg that may be associated with use and consumption of ground turkey produced by a Cargill plant in Arkansas.

On August 3, Cargill recalled 36 million pounds of ground turkey that had been linked to the outbreak through microbiological testing. By Aug. 18, 2011, 111 persons infected with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Heidelberg were identified in 31 states. The outbreak had been apparently going on for months, and no one knew the source.

But that didn’t stop Cargill from restarting the Arkansas plant on Aug. 16, and establishing a blue-ribbon science advisory panel on Aug. 26. Steve Willardsen, president of Cargill’s Wichita-based turkey processing business said at the time, the company has implemented the most aggressive salmonella monitoring and testing program in the poultry industry.

Guess they found something.

A couple of hours ago, Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation of Springdale, Ark. recalled approximately 185,000 pounds of ground turkey products that may be contaminated with a strain of Salmonella Heidelberg.

USDA-FSIS said, “The strain of SalmonellaHeidelberg in question is identical to that of an outbreak of Salmonellosis that resulted in an August 3, 2011 recall of ground turkey products. Although a sample tested positive for the outbreak related strain ofSalmonella, including the identical XbaI and BlnI PFGE patterns matching the August 3 outbreak strain, at this time, neither FSIS nor the plant is aware of any illnesses associated with product from the above dates. An FSIS incident investigation team collected samples at the establishment following the previous recall. Today’s recall occurred after a product sample collected on August 24 tested positive for the outbreak strain ofSalmonella Heidelberg. The firm is recalling product from August 30 based on pending positive match samples. The products subject to recall are derived from bone-in parts.”

The products subject to recall include:

Fresh Ground Turkey Chubs
• 16 oz. (1 lb.) chubs of Fresh HEB Ground Turkey 85/15 with Use or Freeze by Dates of 09/12/2011, 09/13/2011, 09/19/2011 and 09/20/2011
• 16 oz. (1 lb.) chubs of Honeysuckle White 85/15 Fresh Ground Turkey with Use or Freeze by Dates of 09/19/2011, 09/20/2011 and 09/21/2011

Fresh Ground Turkey Trays
• 19.2 oz. (1.2 lb.) trays of Honeysuckle White 85/15 Ground Turkey with Use or Freeze by Dates of 09/10/2011 and 09/12/2011
• 48.0 oz. (3 lb.) trays of Kroger Ground Turkey Fresh 85/15 with Use or Freeze by Dates of 09/17/2011, 09/18/2011 and 09/19/2011
• 48.0 oz. (3 lbs.) trays of Honeysuckle White 85/15 Ground Turkey Family Pack with Use or Freeze by Dates of 09/11/2011, 09/12/2011, 09/13/2011, 09/15/2011, 09/17/2011 and 09/18/2011
• 16 oz. (1 lb.) trays of Honeysuckle White 85/15 Ground Turkey with a Use or Freeze by Date of 09/11/2011

Fresh Ground Turkey Patties
• 16.0 oz. (1 lb.) trays of Honeysuckle White Ground Turkey Patties with a Use or Freeze by Date of 09/18/2011
16 oz. (1 lb.) trays of Kroger Ground Seasoned Turkey Patties Fresh 85/15 with a Use or Freeze by Date of 09/17/2011The products subject to recall today bear the establishment number “P-963” inside the USDA mark of inspection. The products were produced on August 23, 24, 30 and 31 of this year.

Did Cargill salmonella-in-ground turkey recall come fast enough?

The massive ground turkey recall that Cargill Inc. announced this week is raising questions about whether federal food safety regulators should have moved faster to limit a nationwide salmonella outbreak.

I told Mike Hughlett and David Shaffer of Minnesota Star Tribune that, "Part of the problem is the absence of clear guidelines about when to go public."

Doug Powell, a food safety expert at Kansas State University who felt that the recall process was slow with the ground turkey, said food regulators appeared to become more conservative after a big salmonella outbreak in 2008. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration first linked it to tomatoes, only to find out later that jalapeno peppers were the most likely cause. The tomato industry cried foul after it got crushed financially.

The recall that Minnetonka-based Cargill announced late Wednesday covers 36 million pounds of ground turkey, one of the biggest U.S. meat recalls. It’s linked to a particularly virulent strain of salmonella that has infected 78 people in 26 states and led to one death.

The recall involves ground turkey produced as early as February, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture had indications going back to at least July 20 that the culprit might be a Cargill plant in Arkansas.

The timing of the recall highlights a dilemma for the nation’s food regulators over when to go public with recall information. Go too late, and public health could suffer. Go too early and make a mistake, and a corporation or industry’s reputation could unduly suffer.

In Sacramento County, Calif., where a woman older than 65 died in June from the latest outbreak, the county’s health officer brought up another factor bedeviling food regulators these days: budget cutting.

Dr. Glennah Trochet said her department now responds more slowly to outbreaks, sometimes delaying investigations a week or two. Public health workers often aren’t available to interview possible victims. She suspects other agencies face the same constraints. "If you want rapid response, you need to have the resources to do rapid response," Trochet said.

This is something I hear from public health types across the country; it’s almost amazing outbreaks get tracked down at all given the fiscal mess at the state and local levels.

The salmonella outbreak linked to Cargill ground turkey began in early March. Chris Braden, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s director of foodborne diseases, said on Thursday that it was a slowly building outbreak in the beginning.

After recognizing an "unusual clustering" of Salmonella Heidelberg cases, the CDC began investigating on May 23, Braden said. About the same time, routine surveillance by a federal food monitoring system found the same strain of Salmonella Heidelberg in ground turkey in stores.

The monitoring service found four positive samples, one each in April, May, June and July, Braden said. Those four samples were traced to Cargill’s Arkansas plant, he said, though he didn’t elaborate on when.

David Goldman, a public health administrator in the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, told reporters that by July 20 or 21, the agency had traced back two cases from the salmonella outbreak to Cargill’s Arkansas plant. A third traceback to the same plant was confirmed last week.

Late Friday, the USDA put out a public warning about salmonella dangers in ground turkey, without naming the suspected source. Recalls are often initiated when food regulators tell a company they suspect it’s the source of an outbreak.

Oregon mother describes child’s ordeal after being sickened by contaminated ground turkey

As Cargill scrambles to recall 36 million pounds of fresh and frozen ground turkey, and officials defend the lengthy time between the initial illnesses and public notification, Melissa Lee is focused on her 1-year-old daughter, Ruby (right, from a family photo in The Oregonian).

Lynne Terry of The Oregonian reports Melissa Lee’s husband whipped up his recipe of spicy spaghetti and meat balls one night in June, making it like he always does: with ground turkey instead of beef. Preferring leaner nutritious meat for their family, the couple switched from ground beef to turkey years ago.

But ground turkey is precisely what put their baby Ruby in the hospital for seven days in June.

Ten months old and eating meat only for a few weeks, Ruby was sickened by salmonella-tainted ground turkey. She’s the only known case in Oregon and has recovered but an elderly woman in Sacramento County, California died in the outbreak and since March perhaps thousands have been sickened across the country.

Lee, 24, will not be buying ground turkey again any time soon. She’s angry her only child was poisoned by salmonella and hopes their story will help other families avoid the nightmare of food poisoning.

Practically since birth, Ruby has been an easy baby. She’s slept through the night, isn’t fussy and rarely cries. She bursts into giggles around other people and bobs to the beat of pop and rock tunes that stream from the radio in the family’s Troutdale home.

Ruby spent seven days at the hospital, with Lee camped out in the room. Her husband, Brandon Mullen-Bagby, 25, juggling visits and his night-shift job at Home Depot.

Like the other 78 confirmed cases in the outbreak spread over 26 states, Ruby was infected with Salmonella Heidleberg. The strain is one of four that are resistant to many leading antibiotics. That’s one reason such a high proportion of people sickened in the outbreak — nearly 40 percent — have been hospitalized.

No one had any answers until two weeks ago when William Keene, senior epidemiologist at Oregon Public Health, told Lee her daughter was probably sickened by contaminated ground turkey.

She was horrified.

"They should have put a warning on the label," she says. "When you go to the grocery store and buy meat, you expect it to be good for your family."