WICHITA, Kan. – After US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke to the International Association for Food Protection on Aug. 3 in Milwaukee, he told The Associated Press that the government hopes to find the source of a 26-state,Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak linked to ground turkey "very, very" soon. Later that day, Cargill Value Added Meats Retail, a business unit of Wichita-based Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation, announced a Class I recall of approximately 36 million lbs. of fresh and frozen ground turkey products produced at the company’s Springdale, Ark., facility that may be contaminated with a multi-drug resistant strain of

“As of Aug. 3, CDC has received reports that 78 cases from 26 states including one death associated with this outbreak ofSalmonellaHeidelberg since March 1, 2011,” said Chris Braden, M.D., Director, Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases, CDC, during a teleconference update on the morning of Aug. 4. “The reported dates of illness onsets are March 9 through July 2. It’s possible there are other cases that have not yet been reported.”

“This was one of the largest [meat] recalls we have on record,” added David Goldman, M.D., Assistant Administrator, Office of Public Health Science, USDA-Food Safety & Inspection Service. In fact, it is the second-largest meat recall in history, second only to the 2008 recall 143 million lbs. of beef by the now defunct Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co., Chino, Calif.

Cargill announced it had halted production of ground turkey products at its Springdale, Ark., turkey processing facility, one of four turkey processing plants operated by the company, until the source of the outbreak had been determined and corrective actions had been taken.

The products recalled include ground turkey chubs with a use or freeze-by date of Feb. 20 through Aug. 23, 85 percent ground turkey with a use or freeze-by date of Feb. 20 through Aug. 23, 95 percent ground turkey with a use or freeze-by date of Feb. 20 through Aug. 23, ground patties, and frozen ground turkey with production dates of Feb. 20 through Aug. 2.

Cargill initiated this recall as a result of its internal investigation, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) information that became available on Aug. 1, as well as an ongoing USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service investigation into multiple illnesses fromSalmonella Heidelberg.

This recall follows a July 29, 2011 FSIS Public Health Alert that was initiated due to concerns about illnesses caused bySalmonellaHeidelberg that may be associated with use and consumption of ground turkey. Between March 1 and Aug. 3, 79 persons infected with the outbreak strain ofSalmonella Heidelberg have been reported from 26 states. The outbreak strain of Salmonella Heidelberg is resistant to several commonly prescribed antibiotics. Among the ill persons with available information, 22 have been hospitalized and one death has been reported.

As a result of the epidemiologic and traceback investigations, as well as in-plant findings, FSIS determined there is a link between the Cargill ground turkey products and this illness outbreak. FSIS is continuing to work with CDC, affected state public health partners, and the company on the investigation. The Associated Press reported just before the recall announcement Wednesday, Braden said he thought health authorities were closing in on the suspected source. He said some leftover turkey in a package at a victim's house was confirmed to contain the strain of salmonella linked to the outbreak.

“While facts continue to be gathered, and currently there is no conclusive answer regarding the source ofSalmonellaHeidelberg contamination, given our concern for what has happened, and our desire to do what is right for our consumers and customers, we are voluntarily removing our ground turkey products from the marketplace,” said Steve Willardsen, president of Cargill’s turkey processing business. “We are closely examining every aspect of our production process and have identified enhancements to our procedures in our efforts to ensure safe food.”

CKE Restaurants’ Hardee’s and Carl's Jr. restaurants added grilled turkey burgers to their menus this past March. When asked if the company was distributing information to assure consumers of the safety of this product in the wake of the Cargill recall, a spokeswoman with CKE told MeatPoultry.com, “Cargill is not one of our vendors.”

This past April, another processor of ground turkey products, Hormel Foods’ Jennie-O Turkey Store, based in Willmar, Minn. recalled approximately 55,000 lbs. of ground turkey products after the CDC linked the products to illnesses of people infected by theSalmonellaHadar strain. The company clarified to MeatPoultry.com by e-mail: “Jennie-O products are not included in the recent recall for ground turkey products from the US Department of Agriculture.”

When Cargill director of communications Mike Martin was asked by MeatPoultry.com when Cargill realized the recall should be initiated and when was the tipping point, he answered, “Events that led us to make a decision to recall were No. 1: USDA issuing its Public Health Alert last Friday, July 29; and No. 2: CDC this past Monday, Aug. 1, coming out with detailed info of the illnesses and demographics associated with the illnesses. That combined with our own internal information basically led us to the decision we needed to initiate a voluntary recall.

“The tipping point was Monday when the CDC issued their announcement with detailed info about the illnesses,” he added. “Collectively the data gave us enough info to make the decision.

“Management teams both in Wichita and in Minneapolis at corporate headquarters — to the very top of the organization — were involved in ultimately making the recall determination. It was a collective decision and everybody was in agreement — the number-one priority was public health and safety.”