.A government hunt to track those sickened by the nationwide salmonella outbreak discovered that although meat giant Cargill initiated the largest meat recall in history, the signs of an outbreak were evident long before now.
Cargill executives voluntarily recalled 36 million pounds of fresh and frozen ground turkey products produced at the company’s Springdale, Ark., facility on Wednesday due to contamination from Salmonella Heidelberg.
The outbreak has caused widespread panic and sickness in more than half the nation.
There have been 77 illnesses reported, dozens hospitalized, and one death in California as of today, according to the CDC.
The people infected range in age between an infant younger than 1 year to a person 88 years old.
A deeper investigation into the salmonella cases shows people were falling ill to the foodborne illness dating back to at least March.
Cultures of four ground turkey samples purchased from four retail locations between March 7 and June 27 tested positive for Salmonella Heidelberg, according to the CDC.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service issued a public health alert on July 29 due to concerns about illnesses caused by Salmonella Heidelberg that were associated with use and consumption of ground turkey.
Health officials said the strain is resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics, which makes treatment more difficult.
Despite Cargill's voluntary recall, the USDA and CDC are still working to identify the source of the outbreak.
This marks the second time in recent months that turkey has been tied to salmonella contamination. In April, 12 people fell ill amid a salmonella outbreak that prompted the recall of nearly 55,000 pounds of Jennie-O turkey burgers.
Cargill executives have also suspended production of ground turkey products until it is able to determine the source of the Salmonella Heidelberg and take corrective actions, Cargill executives said in a statement this week.
Government officials said states reporting the highest number of reported illnesses are Michigan and Ohio. Texas reported nine illnesses; seven in Illinois, six in California, and five in Pennsylvania.
Other states with at least one reported illness are Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wisconsin.
Due to the frequency of foodborne illnesses in the United States, government officials will now focus on prevention as the "foundation of the modern food safety system."
Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety, at the American Farm Bureau, said public health must be at the heart of all lawmakers.
“We have to truly impact public health and prevent foodborne illnesses, so we have to measure how we're doing. And we have to work smarter, more efficiently with our resources,” Hagen said.
“We serve families, friends and neighbors, and have a singular goal: making sure they do not get sick from the food they eat.”
Hagan said when a person suffers from a foodborne illness, it can cause irreparable harm to the body and family. And the impact of that illness is felt in other ways, too. Health care costs, lost wages, the list goes on, she said.
“A single pathogen can leave a lot of damage in its wake,” Hagan said.
"The cost of foodborne illness is just too high-especially when you consider that it's entirely preventable.” She said everything must be considered from the farm to fork.
“There is room for improvement,” Hagan said. “Human illness rates from Salmonella have not budged, despite a lot of very good effort on many fronts. We don't fully understand why, but we do understand that we need to continue to find ways to drive down contamination rates in food products if we are going to make progress on human disease.”
Government agencies now have the increased challenge of creating policies that prevent contamination from bugs that are constantly evolving and adapting to their environments.
“That means quick, accurate information around recalls and outbreaks,” she said.
The USDA is looking to put a more effective product tracing policy in place for contamination that it finds through regulatory sampling programs, which could prevent outbreaks in the first place.
“Current estimates make one thing crystal clear to me and to my team at USDA: there are still far too many people getting sick or even dying from something as simple, as fundamental to their lives, as the food they eat," Hagan said.
Just last month, CDC estimated that 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die each year from foodborne diseases.
Salmonella infections can be life-threatening, especially to those with weak immune systems, such as infants, the elderly and persons with HIV infection or undergoing chemotherapy.
The most common symptoms of salmonellosis are diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever within eight to 72 hours. Additional symptoms may be chills, headache, nausea and vomiting that can last up to seven days.
The ground turkey recall affects more than 25 different types of meat. All of the packages in question contain the code "Est. P-963," according to Cargill.
The packages were labeled with many different brands, including popular ones like Honeysuckle White and Shady Brook Farms.
Other brands include Riverside Ground Turkey, Natural Lean Ground Turkey, Fit & Active Lean Ground Turkey, Spartan Ground Turkey and Shady Brook Farms Ground Turkey Burgers. The recall also includes ground turkey products packaged under the HEB, Safeway, Kroger, Randall's, Tom Thumb and Giant Eagle grocery store brands.