(CBS/AP) The ground turkey recall that pulled 36 million pounds of meat off U.S. grocery shelves has reassured shoppers. But public health experts are just plain steamed that the government took more than four months to ask manufacturer Cargill for the recall after the outbreak spanned 26 states, killing one person.
The first salmonella illness was reported in March, and signs of an outbreak appeared in May. By July, investigators linked the outbreak to a Cargill ground turkey processing plant in Arkansas.
But Wednesday's recall announcement came almost five months after the first illness, when the USDA asked the meat giant to recall the massive amount of ground turkey, saying the meat was linked to at least 77 illnesses.
"It is simply unacceptable that after more than four months of illnesses and more than 10 weeks of investigation by both the CDC and the USDA we have so few answers to the obvious questions surrounding this outbreak," Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. wrote in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and CDC director Thomas Frieden.
Federal officials defended their investigation by saying they wanted to be absolutely sure before they asked Cargill to initiate the third-largest meat recall in history.
"There was an aggressive and thorough investigation that came together over time to paint one picture of this outbreak," said Dr. Christopher Braden, an epidemiologist at the CDC.
Investigations are often delayed because victims can't remember what they ate or aren't cooperative, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. But even she said the government should have told the company - and the public - about the possible outbreak much sooner.
"This kind of delay in an outbreak situation is one that puts the public health at risk," DeWaal said.
Braden and Dr. David Goldman, assistant administrator for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said Thursday that authorities weren't certain about the outbreak's source until July, when they after checking an infected shopper's card information and a leftover turkey sample from a victim's home.
But less conclusive evidence had pointed toward the Arkansas Cargill plant much earlier. Samples of Cargill ground turkey purchased at four retail locations as part of routine testing between March 7 and June 27 showed contamination with the same strain of salmonella, though those samples were not specifically linked to the illnesses.
Some experts say the difficulty lies with USDA rules that make it harder to investigate and recall salmonella-tainted poultry - because salmonella is so common in poultry, it's not illegal for meat to be tainted with it. If it is cooked to 165 degrees and handled properly, ground turkey tainted with salmonella is safe to eat.
This particular strain is resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics according to the CDC, which makes treatment difficult. Braden said that at least 22 people were hospitalized, which is more than would be expected. But the strain is responsive to some antibiotics, he said.
Consumers should check their freezers for the contaminated products since frozen ground turkey has a long shelf life. The recall involves fresh and frozen ground turkey products produced at Cargill's Springdale, Ark., plant from Feb. 20 through Aug. 2.
All of the packages recalled include the code "Est. P-963," according to Cargill, though packages were labeled under many different brands.