MINNEAPOLIS -- Ground turkey made by Cargill was recalled last week, but the company knew it had salmonella last year.
That's what the USDA says today, saying federal laws stopped it from alerting the public sooner.
"They knew about this being a problem there," said Fred Pritzker, a Minneapolis attorney who specializes in food safety.
The turkey, processed at an Arkansas meat plant, had Salmonella Heidelberg, a strain that can be dangerous, even deadly. But federal laws say tainted meat isn't considered a public health threat until it's directly linked to illness, which, in this case, meant five months of tests before Cargill announced the problem. In the meantime, the turkey killed one person and sickened 77 others before last week's recall, 36 million pounds of ground turkey pulled off the shelves in one of the largest meat recalls in US history.
"It's a failure of moral accountability for the system that these things keep happening when they can be reduced," Pritzker said. "Not eliminated, but reduced.
Cargill spokesman Mike Martin says the company simply followed federal law, that tests showed the salmonella was well below levels allowed by the USDA---so Cargill had no reason to think the turkey was dangerous. Martin says controlling illness is "a collective challenge," and that the recall has "strengthened resolve" to make their food safer.
But experts say this is one of many recalls that point to a bigger problem. Federal laws, they say, must be stricter so companies are forced to make safer food, and stop selling it immediately if it might be contaminated.
"Things aren't going to change until there's pressure exerted from the top down from the government and from the bottom up from the consumers to change the way they do business," Pritzker said.
So, what can you do as a consumer?
Safety advocates say the first step is telling your lawmakers you want stricter food laws so that companies are forced to recall foods that might be dangerous. In this case they didn't have to do it until it was directly linked to people getting sick.
They also say you can try to buy meat from companies that don't use antibiotics, since that's partly what causes these dangerous strains of bacteria.
And, they say, when you're handling food, wash your hands.
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