Asks Congress to Give USDA Recall Authority

Yonkers, N.Y.—Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, today called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to drastically tighten its present Salmonella standard, which allows almost half the samples tested at a ground turkey plant to be contaminated with this disease-causing bug. Consumers Union also called on Congress to give the USDA mandatory recall authority, as it just did for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the Food Safety Modernization Act.

“The current USDA ground turkey standard, which allows 49.9 percent of samples in a test run to be positive for Salmonella is unacceptable and clearly ineffective as a tool for food safety,” said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union.

The Center for Disease Control has identified 77 illnesses and one death so far, associated with a strain of Salmonella Heidelberg, found in ground turkey from one processing plant in Arkansas. On August 3, Cargill recalled 36 million pounds of turkey manufactured at the plant since February.

The ground turkey industry generally meets the current very lax USDA standard. USDA tests of 121 samples of ground turkey at 22 ground turkey facilities in the first quarter of 2011 show that 10.7 percent were contaminated, about the same number as for 2010. Consumers Union believes this level is too high and a tighter standard is needed.

“For one in ten packages of ground turkey to potentially be contaminated with disease-causing Salmonella is simply too great a risk,” Halloran said. “The current USDA standard, which allows almost 50 percent to be contaminated, is completely ineffectual as a tool for reducing this level.”

USDA recently reduced its acceptable level of Salmonella in whole turkeys from 19 percent to 1.7 percent contaminated in a given series of tests. “USDA should make a similar drastic reduction in its performance standard for ground turkey,” Halloran said.

Consumers Union points out that similar problems exist with ground chicken, where salmonella levels are even higher—about one third contaminated in USDA’s 2011 first quarter tests—and the USDA standard for acceptable contamination is 44.6 percent of samples. Consumers Union periodically has tested whole chicken and found high levels of bacterial contamination since 1998.

Consumers Union urges consumers to be sure to cook all poultry products well done, to an internal temperature of 165 degrees measured by a meat thermometer and to be very careful to keep packages of raw poultry of any kind away from all other foods in the kitchen.

“Knives and cutting boards used on poultry should go straight into the dishwasher. Turkey burgers on the grill must be well done,” advised Halloran.