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Same Plant, New Month: Cargill Ground Turkey Recall, Take 2

Food giant Cargill initiated another ground turkey recall over the weekend.

It's pretty small — just 185,000 pounds of meat compared with the August 3 recall involving 36 million pounds. But the recall involves the same plant, the same drug-resistant strain of salmonella, and some of the same products. Is this just a coincidence?

"The problem may not be smaller, but the recall may be smaller," former Food and Drug Administration food safety chief David Acheson tells Shots. While the investigation is ongoing, and no one's gotten sick from this new recall, Acheson says there are a few possible explanations for the repeat.

He says the initial source of the turkeys could be the problem. "There could be a batch of turkeys with the same batch of salmonella coming in from the same farm," Acheson says.

Cargill spokesman Mike Martin tells Shots that the source isn't the same as last time, and the company hasn't yet traced the source of the contamination.

Another possible explanation, Acheson says, could be that the cleanup in between recalls was inadequate. "Salmonella can be living in a drain or on a mop or on the walls or in an air vent, so it can recolonize," he says.

Last month, Cargill recalled 36 million pounds of ground turkey thought to be contaminated with Salmonella Heidelberg. The products were distributed nationwide, and blamed for sickening more than 100 people and for the death of at least one.

Martin says that after that recall, the Springdale, Ark. plant found responsible was shut down for a week and reopened August 10 only after extensive cleaning and U.S. Department of Agriculture review. The company also set up an independent panel of experts to review Cargill's food safety program and make recommendations for improvements.

The latest recall is a separate incident, Martin says, and was based on a single positive sample taken by USDA. Martin says the incident "underscores the challenges and frustrations associated with managing naturally and randomly occurring bacteria which exist throughout our environment." The company is exploring further measures to reduce salmonella.

The new recall involves turkey processed on August 23, 24, 30 and 31, and contains the code number "P-963" inside the USDA mark of inspection on the package. For a complete list of products being recalled, see Cargill's statement here.

In the wake of this recall and others lately, consumer groups are asking the USDA to just declare salmonella strains "adulterants" to meat, which would make it easier to get the stuff out of commerce — even before someone gets sick.

Separately, Shots has learned that the USDA is expected to announce tomorrow that it will start requiring additional testing for six more e. coli strains in raw beef, starting in March.

So what's a consumer to do meanwhile? Acheson says we should basically treat every package of meat as if it might be contaminated. "This isn't blaming the consumer, this is the reality, the reality today," he says.

And, he says, do what Grandma's been saying: Wash your hands before cooking. Separate meat from other foods. Keep your cutting boards clean.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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