CDC Reports Widespread Salmonella Outbreak From Eating Turkey

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Ninety people across 26 states have been sickened and 40 hospitalized since last November due to an outbreak of salmonella linked to raw turkey products, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

While the CDC is not advising consumers to avoid eating turkey, it is urging caution when handling raw turkey. No deaths have been reported from the outbreak. 

“We’re concerned that there’s widespread contamination—from live turkeys, to raw turkey products that people are handling and eating,” said Laura Gieraltowski, Ph.D., lead for the foodborne outbreak response team at CDC.

Illnesses related to this outbreak have been identified as far back as November of 2017. Gieraltowski said the agency didn’t alert the public until now partly because it couldn’t identify a common source it could tell people to avoid. The CDC still hasn’t traced the source of the contamination back to any manufacturer, processing plant, type of turkey, or farm.

Consumer advocates raised questions about the delay. 

“Given that this outbreak has been continuing for nine months, it’s still surprising that the USDA and CDC did not alert the public earlier so people would know to be especially careful with raw turkey,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports.

Gieraltowski said the investigation into this salmonella outbreak has been complex.

“We have ill people that are reporting lots of different types of turkey products with lots of different brands, and purchasing them from many different locations,” she said. People who have become ill have said they came into contact with or ate ground turkey, turkey parts (such as drumsticks of breasts), and whole turkeys.

Consumer Reports’ food safety experts agree with the CDC’s position that consumers can continue to eat turkey, so long as they take precautions when handling it and cooking it.

“It’s extremely important to employ good food safety practices,” said Halloran. “That means cooking turkey thoroughly and washing anything else, including your hands, that touched the turkey.” (More on safe handling of turkey, below.)

The CDC is also recommending that people not feed their pets raw turkey, as two illnesses in this outbreak occurred in homes where pets had been fed raw turkey pet food.

This is the ninth salmonella outbreak known to officials this year–the others occurred in foods as varied as precut melon, eggs, Honey Smacks cereal, and frozen shredded coconut.

Two people who became ill told the CDC that they’d given their pets raw ground turkey pet food. The Minnesota Department of Health in February alerted consumers that one pet food company had recalled some of its products because of those two cases of salmonella illness linked to pet food.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has found the same strain of salmonella that’s been making people sick during its routine testing of turkey processing facilities. So far, FSIS has found the type of salmonella causing the current outbreak in 19 slaughtering facilities and 6 processing establishments.

Most of the states where people have become ill are in the eastern half of the country, but a few western states have also had cases, including Alaska and Hawaii.

The CDC said it has asked representatives from the turkey industry what steps manufacturers are taking to prevent salmonella contamination.

The National Turkey Federation, the trade association representing turkey manufacturers, told CR: “Our members are individually reviewing their Salmonella control programs in all phases of turkey production as well as working collectively … to address this and all strains of Salmonella.” 

The Severity of This Toxin

It usually takes 12 to 72 hours after you’ve ingested something contaminated with salmonella to get sick. The key symptoms are diarrhea, fever, abdominal pain, and sometimes vomiting.

The strain of salmonella implicated in the current turkey outbreak is known as the Reading strain.

“There’s no indication that this strain is any more virulent than other strains,” Gieraltowski said.

Of all the people sickened in this outbreak, investigators know the hospitalization status of 78 people. The fact that 40 of those—a higher proportion than in some other outbreaks—may just reflect the fact that it’s usually only the most severe cases that get reported to the CDC, she said.

The CDC tested several samples of the bacteria from people who had gotten sick and found that some of the bacteria showed signs of being resistant to antibiotics. But the agency said the antibiotics the bacteria were resistant to aren’t the ones usually used in treating salmonella infections.

According to Gieraltowski, antibiotic resistance “doesn’t really have any clinical relevance in this case.”

Still, it’s possible for poultry to be the source of an antibiotic-resistant infection. A 2013 Consumer Reports test of ground turkey found antibiotic-resistant pathogens in many of the samples.

Most people recover from salmonella without treatment, but in some severe cases, if the infection spreads beyond the intestines, antibiotics are required. Those most at risk for severe infection include young children, older adults, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems.

Consumer Reports and the CDC advise taking precautions to avoid a salmonella infection in the first place.

How to Prevent Salmonella

“This outbreak is a reminder that raw turkey products can have germs that spread around food preparation areas and can make you sick,” the CDC noted in its report. Here are some precautions to take.

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  • Cook all turkey to an internal temperature of 165° F before eating. “Use a meat thermometer if possible,” advises Sana Mujahid, Ph.D., manager of food-safety research at CR.

  • Don’t wash raw turkey before preparing it, as this may just spread the germs on turkey around your kitchen. Be sure to thoroughly wash all countertops, cutting boards, utensils, and any other kitchen items that come in contact with raw turkey.

  • And finally, “Don’t give your pets raw turkey,” Mujahid says. You can get sick if you handle raw pet food and don’t wash your hands—and your pets can get sick from salmonella too.

Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2018, Consumer Reports, Inc.

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