By WILLIAM NEUMAN, New York Times
Cargill, a major United States meat processor, said Wednesday that it was recalling about 36 million pounds of ground turkey produced at an Arkansas plant after it was linked to a nationwide outbreak of salmonella sickness. It appeared to be one of the largest meat recalls ever.
One person in California has died in the outbreak and at least 76 have fallen ill.
The outbreak involved a strain of the bacteria known as Salmonella Heidelberg, which is resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cargill said that it was suspending ground turkey production at the plant in Springdale, Ark., where the tainted meat originated, until it could identify the source of the contamination and fix it.
“It is regrettable that people may have become ill from eating one of our ground turkey products and, for anyone who did, we are truly sorry,” Steve Willardsen, president of Cargill’s turkey processing business, said in a written statement.
The recall was among the largest ever for meat products associated with an outbreak of illness, said William Marler, a Seattle lawyer who specializes in food poisoning cases.
The recall was announced by Cargill Value Added Meats Retail, a unit of Cargill’s meat subsidiary. The company said some of the ground turkey was sold in supermarkets under the Honeysuckle White brand. The company said it was recalling ground turkey produced at the Arkansas plant since late February.
Federal data shows that 10 to 15 percent of ground turkey typically is contaminated with salmonella. Federal data from tests in 2009 also showed that more than three-quarters of salmonella samples found on ground turkey was resistant to at least one type of antibiotic.
Bacteria can develop resistance after exposure to antibiotics that are routinely used in raising food animals.
Salmonella is killed by cooking, and public health officials say ground poultry should be heated to 165 degrees, as measured by a meat thermometer. But people can also be infected through cross-contamination in the kitchen, as when utensils or cutting boards used for raw turkey meat come in contact with other food.
The first cases of sickness associated with the current outbreak occurred in early March. Additional cases have continued to crop up every week. Officials said the number of illnesses was likely to increase because there is often a time lag in reporting new cases. So far illnesses have been reported in 26 states.
Salmonella infection can lead to fever and diarrhea. Severe cases can lead to blood poisoning.
Mild cases are typically not treated with antibiotics but health officials said antibiotics are used to treat blood poisoning. They can also be used to safeguard against complications in patients with weakened immune systems, as well as in the elderly and very young.
It was not clear why it took five months to identify the outbreak and its source and to notify the public of the investigation.
The C.D.C. said in a report released Monday that routine sampling of meat bought at supermarkets detected four packages of turkey meat containing a strain of salmonella that matched the outbreak strain. Those packages were bought between March 7 and June 27, the agency said, and at least three were produced at the same plant.
As recently as Tuesday, the Agriculture Department, which regulates the meat industry, said that it did not have evidence that conclusively linked any particular plant to the outbreak.
Cargill Value Added Meats is the third-largest turkey processor in the country, according to an annual industry ranking compiled by WATT PoultryUSA, a trade journal.
Total ground turkey production nationwide was 450 million pounds in 2009, according to the National Turkey Federation.