Cargill's Salmonella Setback Shows Strength of Screening

Salmonella sparks another Cargill recall -- this time before anyone got sick.

September 12, 2011, 6:12 PM

Sept. 13, 2011— -- Despite beefed-up safety measures in the wake of an August salmonella outbreak, Cargill Inc. has recalled more ground turkey tainted with the same bacterial strain. But this time, the nobody got sick -- a credit to strict screening by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Cargill announced the voluntary recall Sunday after a sample from its Springdale, Ark., processing plant tested positive for salmonella Heidelberg -- an antibiotic-resistant strain that killed one person and sickened 107 more earlier this summer.

The August outbreak prompted a recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey and a crackdown on food safety measures by the USDA. The new contamination, which has not caused any known sickness, prompted a much smaller recall of about 185,000 pounds of poultry, but has irked Cargill officials nonetheless.

"We go to great lengths to ensure the food we produce is safe each serving, every time, which makes the identification and reduction of naturally and randomly occurring bacteria so challenging and often frustrating," Steve Willardsen, president of Cargill's turkey processing business said in a statement. "Our resolve to determine how best to reduce human health risks from these bacteria remains unwavering."

After the August recall, Cargill dismantled and steam-cleaned affected equipment, boosted anti-bacterial washing and installed the most advanced sampling and monitoring system in the poultry industry. But the sneaky salmonella -- particularly sinister because of its resistance to typical drugs -- shows just how tough the fight against bacteria can be.

New Recall Proves Power of Screening

In May 2011, the food safety watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the USDA to start routinely testing ground meat and poultry for Heidelberg and three other hard-to-treat salmonella strains.

"The only thing worse than getting sick from food is being told that no drugs exist to treat your illness," CSPI food safety staff attorney Sarah Klein said in a statement at the time. "And that's what more consumers will hear if these drug-resistant pathogens keep getting into our meat."

The USDA collected the recent Cargill samples and tested them for Heidelberg salmonella because of the previous recall. But the CSPI petition urges the agency to classify the salmonella strains as adulterants -- a designation that would make contaminated products illegal and routine testing mandatory.

The USDA did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for a comment on the CSPI salmonella petition. But today the agency declared six strains of another food borne bacteria, E. coli, adulterants -- a move met with resistance from the meat industry because of the added cost of expanded screening programs.

"This is a big win for consumers," Ami Gadhia, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union said in a statement. "In the wake of many recent food recalls caused by E. coli contamination, it is critical that we take the necessary steps to protect the health and well being of all consumers."

Salmonella was responsible for eight of 11 food-borne outbreaks this year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. E.coli caused the other three.

To prevent salmonella infection and other food-borne illnesses, wash hands with warm, soapy water before and after handling raw meat and poultry, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service urges. And always cook poultry -- including ground turkey -- to 165 degrees.

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