MINNEAPOLIS - With Thanksgiving approaching, concerns about salmonella in turkey products is on the table for many consumer groups. A drug-resistant strain of the bacteria has made more than 160 people in 35 states sick and killed one person in the past year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Steve Suppan, senior policy analyst with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, said this current outbreak could be the product of 15 years of privatizing the U.S. Department of Agriculture food-inspection process. He said poultry plants can now determine their own line speed - up to 175 birds a minute - making it nearly impossible for inspectors to adequately examine birds.
"The carcasses can have fecal matter on them. The fecal matter is the most likely source of the salmonella," Suppan said. "So there's, I would say, a relationship between this new poultry-inspection system and the salmonella performance failure that needs to be investigated."
Minnesota is the largest turkey-producing state in the nation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Safety Inspection Service has identified at least 22 turkey slaughterhouses and seven processing plants where tainted meat has passed through. But the agency said it would be irresponsible to link producers with an outbreak investigation when a connection between a facility and the illness has not yet been made.
There have been 17 cases of this salmonella strain in Minnesota over the past year. And the CDC noted that for every one case that's reported, an estimated 29 aren't.
Suppan said people need to follow FSIS's recommendations to use separate knives and cutting boards for turkeys and not to wash them, as that could spread salmonella. But, he also said the lack of a recall or further action on the issue shifts responsibility away from the industry.
"It puts a large burden on the consumer," he said. "And I would hope that the Centers for Disease Control would be alerting hospitals to the possibility of more salmonella-related cases."
Suppan said workers handling wild birds also are getting sick, and that's a big problem.
"As long as the U.S. government does nothing but protect the industry, the industry is not going to feel any pressure to change its production practices - and that has to happen," he said