Last November, we reported on an ongoing investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) into turkey products that had been contaminated with salmonella bacteria. On Thursday, CDC announced that illness reports from the outbreak are still coming in—and that people should continue to exercise caution when preparing turkey this season.
The report, which appeared in CDC’s delightfully named Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, provides new insight into a food poisoning outbreak that sickened at least 356 people in 42 states and Washington, D.C., between November 2017 and March 2019. And, though the agency’s investigation officially ended in April, the new report says that “cases continue to be identified.” At least 132 people have been hospitalized in the outbreak, and one person died.
The report also highlights how diffuse the contaminated turkey products have been, with no common supplier, type of product (ground turkey, whole, frozen turkeys, and so on), or production facility. “Evidence suggests that this outbreak strain has become widespread within the turkey production industry, warranting continued preventive actions to reduce contamination,” the report reads.
In July 2018, the CDC and the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) took the unusual step of meeting with representatives throughout the turkey industry, rather than one particular supplier. The goal was to emphasize the prevalence and danger of the foodborne pathogen, and encourage industry players to better monitor all parts of the supply chain, including “slaughter and processing facilities and upstream farm sources.”
The report also admonishes the public to be more diligent about keeping turkey preparation safe and clean. Citing USDA research into food safety best practices, it indicates that some illnesses could have been prevented if the victims had cooked the meat to a safe, bacteria-killing temperature of 165°F. Also, because some of the illnesses were traced back to raw meat that had been fed to pets, CDC underscored its position that raw pet food diets should be avoided.
Here are some easy steps to take when working with raw turkey:
- Never, ever wash your turkey. The impulse is understandable, but it doesn’t accomplish much and makes it easy for bacteria-laden water to cross-contaminate your kitchen surfaces.
- Do wash your hands, however, before you cook and frequently throughout preparation. (Consumer Reports—where I was formerly employed as an editor—has a handwashing guide, if you need a refresher.) It’s very easy to spread contamination by touching doorknobs, spice bottles, cell phones, and other everyday items.
- Thaw turkeys safely: In a container in your refrigerator, in a leak-proof bag in the sink, or in the microwave according to manufacturer instructions.
- Always use a meat thermometer, inserted into the thickest portions of the breast, thigh, and wing joint, to ensure it has reached 165°F.
Update, 11/21/2019, 4:29 p.m.: After this story published, a CDC spokesperson emailed some additional information: “Cases have been reported as recently as late October, which underscores the message in the MMWR report that this strain is widespread within the turkey production industry, warranting continued preventive actions to reduce contamination.”