USDA se­crecy en­dan­gers pub­lic health

The Sun Herald (Sunday) - - Nation & World - BY THE LOS AN­GE­LES TIMES ED­I­TO­RIAL BOARD

Did you run to the freezer to check the la­bel on your socked-away pack­age of ground turkey af­ter hear­ing about the re­call of Jen­nie-O prod­ucts last week? If not, do it now. We’ll wait.

On Thurs­day, just a week be­fore the tra­di­tional day of mass-scale turkey con­sump­tion, the U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture’s Food Safety and In­spec­tion Ser­vice is­sued a re­call of nearly 150,000 pounds of raw ground turkey that may con­tain the Read­ing strain of sal­monella bac­te­ria. The USDA rec­om­mends that if you have one of the sus­pect pack­ages, throw it out or re­turn it to the store. Al­though you can cook the dan­ger away and avoid con­tam­i­na­tion with proper han­dling, the USDA says, the risk from this an­tibi­otic-re­sis­tant bac­te­ria is too great.

Nor­mally, the ill­ness caused by sal­monella in­fec­tions is rel­a­tively mi­nor, if un­pleas­ant, and it passes in a few days. But in this out­break, 63 peo­ple have been hos­pi­tal­ized, and one per­son in Cali- for­nia died.

And don’t re­lax if the turkey or drum­sticks in your fridge isn’t on the re­call list. It may well be teem­ing with sal­monella Read­ing. In­deed, there’s a wide­spread out­break of this strain, which has been re­ported in whole birds and a num­ber of other raw turkey prod­ucts, and in more brands than just Jen­nie-O. Over the past 12 months, at least 164 peo­ple in 35 states have been in­fected.

In­spec­tors have found the same strain in sam­ples of raw turkey prod­ucts taken from 22 slaugh­ter­houses and seven pro­cess­ing fa­cil­i­ties. Which ones? We don’t know, and the USDA is not say­ing.

A num­ber of con­sumer ad­vo­cacy groups, in­clud­ing Con­sumer Re­ports, say this se­crecy en­dan­gers pub­lic health. In a let­ter to Agri­cul­ture Sec­re­tary Sonny Per­due last week, the Safe Food Coali­tion urged the USDA to pub­lish an ur­gent pub­lic health alert nam­ing the turkey slaugh­ter­houses and pro­cess­ing es­tab­lish­ments linked to the out­break. It seems a rea­son­able re­quest, con­sid­er­ing the scope of the out­break, but USDA of­fi­cials re­sponded by at­tack­ing con­sumer groups as “spe­cial in­ter­ests” mak­ing ir­re­spon­si­ble sug­ges­tions. It’s dis­ap­point­ing that food safety of­fi­cials view the pub­lic as a spe­cial in­ter­est best kept in the dark un­til a pack­age of salmonel­latainted turkey in­fects some un­sus­pect­ing diner.

If the USDA doesn’t want to im­pli­cate a sin­gle turkey sup­plier, then per­haps it ought to con­sider the broader ap­proach taken by other agen­cies faced with se­ri­ous food­borne ill­ness out­breaks. The U.S. Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion, for ex­am­ple, re­acted quickly to an out­break of E. coli in ro­maine let­tuce in April and within two weeks warned con­sumers to avoid all ro­maine let­tuce from the en­tire Yuma grow­ing re­gion. And on Tues­day, the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion iden­ti­fied a sec­ond, un­re­lated out­break of E. coli and warned con­sumers to avoid any form of ro­maine from any source and any lo­ca­tion un­til au­thor­i­ties fig­ure out where the bac­te­ria orig­i­nated, thus im­pli­cat­ing all let­tuce sup­pli­ers.

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