Friends who invited me to dinner last night served turkey meatballs on linguine. In spite of the day’s news, I didn’t hesitate to eat them because I knew that the turkey came from a family farm nearby. But if I were eating in a restaurant, I would want to know if it came from the company that supplies 14 percent of America’s ground turkey.
For the second time in two months, Cargill is recalling turkey products from a U.S. facility because USDA inspectors found salmonella Heidelberg in meat samples. This time only 185,000 pounds are affected instead of the previous 36 million pounds, but the source is the same: the company’s huge Springdale, Arkansas, plant. At this point no outbreaks are connected to the latest recall. The last one put 22 in hospital, sickened 77 and caused one death.
After USDA inspectors found the antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the ground turkey, the Springdale plant undertook a thorough cleaning and assembled a food safety panel to review its processes. ThePoultrySite.com describes enhancements the company made:
“Since the recall, Cargill has made several enhancements to its food safety programme. These include two additional antibacterial washes, intensifying an existing antibacterial system, disassembling and steam cleaning equipment before resuming ground turkey production, and requiring suppliers of turkey meat to add a new antibacterial wash. The company has also implemented the most aggressive Salmonella monitoring and testing programme in the poultry industry.”
How Reassuring Are Cargill’s Reassurances?
On the Cargill Web site, Steve Willardsen, president of the company’s turkey processing division says, “We go to great lengths to ensure the food we produce is safe each serving, every time, which makes the identification and reduction of naturally and randomly occurring bacteria so challenging and often frustrating. Our resolve to determine how best to reduce human health risks from these bacteria remains unwavering.”
In spite of the company’s commitment to consumer safety, the salmonella that caused the earlier problems came from products made over an extended period, between December 20, 2010, and August 2, 2011. Given the virulence of salmonella Heidelberg, good fortune had to be smiling on Cargill. Otherwise more people might have fallen ill, and the company would be facing more than just one lawsuit (by an Oregon family whose daughter was hospitalized).
Tom Philpott points out in Mother Jones that Cargill reopened the Springdale plant on August 15th. The USDA tested samples from August 24th and found traces of the same salmonella strain that led to the earlier recall. It appears the company’s “great lengths” to ensure safety were not quite enough.
Consumer Acceptance Is Part of the Problem
Animals raised in close confinement will always need antibiotics to ward off diseases. The same is true of all animals, including people, crowded into inadequate spaces. So CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) and the massive plants that prepare meat for our tables will continue to be breeding grounds for antibiotic-resistant diseases.
The USDA’s move to ban six more strains of E. coli in ground beef is a step forward. However, as long as demand for meat continues to rise around the globe and consumers willingly buy it no matter how the animals have been treated, we can expect more recalls. No amount of enhancements in meat plants or improvements in animal handling will make factory-farmed meat a completely safe, let alone ethical, choice.
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Photo from Drew Avery via Flickr Creative Commons