WASHINGTON – The government is scrambling to find the source of a salmonella outbreak likely linked to ground turkey that has killed one and sickened dozens more.
Finding the source of an outbreak hasn’t been easy; the government has been chasing the illnesses for months. The Agriculture Department, which oversees meat safety, said it is still investigating who produced the meat, and the department hasn’t initiated a recall.
California state health officials said Tuesday that the one death was in Sacramento County. Seventy-six people in 26 states have been made sick from the same strain of the disease.
The illnesses date back to March, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday that cultures of ground turkey from four retail locations between March 7 and June 27 showed contamination with the same strain of salmonella, though those samples were not specifically linked to the illnesses. The agency said preliminary information showed that three of those samples have been linked to the same production establishment but it did not name the retailers or the manufacturers.
The silence from government officials may be attributed to USDA rules that make it harder to investigate and recall salmonella-tainted poultry. Because salmonella is common in poultry, it is not illegal for meat to be tainted with the pathogen. Officials must directly link the salmonella illnesses with a certain producer or establishment, which is difficult to do because people don’t always remember what they ate or where they bought it.
In this case, it appears that officials haven’t been able to prove the link between the samples of salmonella they found – even though they are the same strain – and the 77 people who were sickened. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service sent out an alert about the illnesses late last week telling consumers to properly cook their turkey, which can decrease the chances of salmonella poisoning.
“Despite an extensive investigation by FSIS and CDC to date, there is little epidemiological information available at this time that conclusively links these illnesses to any specific product or establishment,” FSIS spokesman Neil Gaffney said Tuesday. “Without specific enough data, it would not be appropriate to issue a recall notice.”
Art Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, said the government’s handling of the outbreak raises ethical questions about why the public wasn’t warned sooner.
“You’ve got to protect the public health. That’s their first and primary value – not industry, not any other goal. They have to warn as quickly as they think there’s reasonable evidence for concern,” Caplan said.
A chart on the CDC’s website shows cases have occurred every month since early March, with spikes in May and early June. The latest reported cases were in mid-July, although the CDC said some recent cases may not have been reported yet.