Butterball is recalling over 78,000 pounds of packaged raw ground turkey products that could be contaminated with Salmonella, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced on Wednesday.
The recalled products all have a sell- or freeze-by date of July 26, 2018, and were shipped nationwide to retail and institutional locations. The product details are available on the USDA website, along with images of the labels.
“Because these products were packaged nine months ago, it is highly unlikely any of the product will be found in retail stores, but it is possible that consumers may have product in their freezers,” North Carolina–based Butterball, LLC, said in its own press release.
The USDA urged consumers not to use these products. Instead, they should throw them away or return them to the place of purchase.
The recalled products may be contaminated with Salmonella schwarzengrund, one of more than of Salmonella, according to the agency.
Consuming food contaminated with Salmonella can cause a foodborne illness called salmonellosis. Common symptoms include abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and fever within 12 to 72 hours of eating the contaminated food.
The illness usually lasts four to seven days. Most people get better without treatment. Older adults, infants, and people with a compromised immune system have a greater chance of developing a serious illness.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is investigating if the turkey is linked to an outbreak of salmonella illness involving five patients in two states. Butterball ground turkey items were taken from four of those infected. Salmonella from both infected patients and the ground turkey appeared genetically similar.
This is unrelated to another being tracked by the CDC.
That one is caused by a different strain of Salmonella in raw turkey products. It’s resulted in 279 people infected in 41 states and the District of Columbia, with one death.
Are food recalls on the rise?
A report by nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Group shows that food recalls increased 10 percent between 2013 and 2017.
This is based on recall data from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The most dangerous category of meat and poultry recalls increased 83 percent during this time. Overall meat and poultry recalls increased 67 percent.
Recalls of produce and processed foods increased only 2 percent.
The report also shows that recalls haven’t increased steadily year-over-year. There was a spike in overall recalls in 2016, with a decline over the next two years.
What’s behind this increase?
More recalls doesn’t necessarily mean that food in America is getting less safe.
“Technological advances have allowed for more rapid analysis of food products,” said Kali Kniel, PhD, a professor of microbial food safety at the University of Delaware.
This includes technologies like whole genome sequencing (WGS) of foodborne bacteria and other pathogens.
“With WGS, state laboratories and epidemiologists can connect cases of foodborne illness and contamination events faster, and can even make connections between cases that happened years apart in time,” said Kniel.
Data from the also shows that the number of illnesses caused by Salmonella didn’t change much between 2006 and 2017. Illnesses caused by other pathogens even decreased during that time.
Are food safety regulations involved?
Simon F. Haeder, PhD, MPA, an assistant professor of political science at West Virginia University, said the rise in food recalls could also be related to changes in food safety regulations.
He and a colleague looked at the effect of lobbying on federal regulations. They found that business groups were more successful than public interest groups at pushing for changes to regulations.
Their 2015 study looked at all federal regulatory agencies, not just the FDA or USDA.
But Haeder said, “It seems quite plausible that business interests in the food chain have consistently lobbied, and were often successful, in obtaining more favorable regulations, such as less oversight and fewer monitoring requirements.”
This could lead to changes in how companies process, package, or ship foods, with a potential to increase the risk of contamination. More lax regulations may also delay companies from finding problems with food products.
Should consumers be worried?
Kniel said compared to how much food is produced and consumed in the United States each year, “the level of foodborne illness that occurs is only a small — but important — fraction.”
Still, she said consumers should pay attention to food recalls.
Foodsafety.gov is regularly updated with recalls, both on the website and in its social media feeds.
Haeder said his work also raises concerns about the transparency and accountability of how federal regulations change. This is something that advocacy groups like U.S. PIRG are trying to address.
Although no food contamination would be ideal, that’s unlikely to happen. But there’s an upside to recalls.
“One way to look at a recall is that the food safety system is working,” said Kniel, “and the companies are invested in food safety.”