USDA Should Stop Giving Turkey Industry ‘Holiday’ From Bacteria Testing

CSPI Tests Find 28% of Fresh Turkeys Contaminated

WASHINGTON - At a news conference today, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to immediately begin testing turkeys for the illness-causing bacteria Campylobacter. The urgent recommendation was based on the laboratory results of a new study of turkeys tested for harmful bacteria. It is estimated thatCampylobacter causes 47% of all food poisonings each year. Currently, the USDA is required only to test turkeys forSalmonella, another harmful bacteria.

   In the new CSPI study, laboratory tests were conducted to determine bacteria levels on fresh and frozen turkeys from five cities. The turkeys were purchased at local grocery stores in Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami/Ft. Lauderdale.

   “Last year USDA released data on turkey contamination that showed 90% of the turkeys tested in 1996 and 1997 were contaminated with Campylobacter and 18% were contaminated withSalmonella,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of Food Safety for CSPI. “This year, CSPI hoped to document positive changes in turkey safety due to the new mandatory hazard control systems (called HACCP) now used in most turkey plants. Instead, what we found was shocking.”

   “Although USDA has evidence showing that many chicken, pork, and ground beef plants have dramatically improved their performance under HACCP, essentially slicing their Salmonellacontamination rates in half or better, they have no data about how turkey slaughter plants are performing. In fact, the agency isn’t even running the required Salmonella tests in turkey slaughter plants. The reason? Nearly two years after the government mandated ‘Pathogen Reduction and HACCP’s program was started, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is tied up in knots with bureaucratic red tape,” continued DeWaal. “The bottom line — the USDA should stop giving the turkey industry a holiday fromSalmonella testing.”

  • Tests conducted by CSPI on 50 turkeys from five cities found:
  • A total of 16% of all turkeys tested were contaminated withCampylobacter.
  • Fresh turkeys in the sample were significantly more likely than the frozen turkeys to be contaminated.
  • Turkeys from Los Angeles were more contaminated than turkeys from Washington, DC, New York, Chicago, and Miami.
  • None of the turkeys tested were contaminated withSalmonella.

   “CSPI’s bacteria testing on turkeys shows that some consumers are at risk for illness from Campylobacter contamination. Our findings indicate that USDA needs to add Campylobacter to their turkey testing regimen.”

   The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 77 million people are sickened each year by food poisoning. Of those people who become sick, 5,000 die. Campylobacter is the leading bacterial cause of foodborne diarrhea and current data suggests that more cases of foodborne diarrhea are linked to poultry than to any other foods.

   “Our turkey tests also revealed some good news. None of the 50 turkeys we tested were contaminated with the Salmonella, which causes 32% of all food poisonings each year,” said DeWaal. “But optimism shouldn’t give way to sloppy practices in the kitchen. Whenever serving older grandparents or young children always use safe-food preparation practices.”

   “Consumers can improve their odds of avoiding food poisoning by washing their hands frequently, using safe food-handling practices such as washing preparation counters thoroughly with hot soapy water before and after handling their turkey, and by cooking the turkey to 180°,” concluded DeWaal.