USDA secrecy endangers public health
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.