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Cargill Meat Recall Heightens Fears Budgets Cuts Will Weaken Oversight, Threaten Public Health

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In one of the largest meat recalls in U.S. history, this week the food giant Cargill ordered the recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey. The recall came after at least one person died from Salmonella, and another 76 people fell ill, from turkey products traced to Cargill’s processing plant in Springdale, Arkansas. According to the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Salmonella outbreak involves a strain of the bacteria known as Salmonella Heidelberg, which is resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics. Although the recall was announced this week, the outbreak began in March. More than 3,000 people die a year from food poisoning in the United States, and millions more get sick. Food safety advocates say this latest outbreak shows how budget cuts have hampered the ability of federal and state health agencies to effectively protect public health. We speak with Patty Lovera, assistant director of the food safety group, Food & Water Watch. "As Congress comes back this budget-cutting mode [where] nothing is really sacred, we need to be telling them food safety inspections...are not acceptable places to find these savings," Lovera says. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In one of the largest meat recalls in U.S. history, this week the food giant Cargill ordered the recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey. The recall comes after at least one person has died of Salmonella, and another 76 have fallen ill. The turkey products were traced to Cargill’s processing plant in Springdale, Arkansas. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Salmonella outbreak involves a strain of the bacteria known as Salmonella Heidelberg, which is resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics.

Although it was announced this week, the outbreak began in March. According to the CDC, Salmonella cases then spiked in May and early June. Three thousand people die a year from food poisoning in the United States; 50 million people get sick. Food safety advocates say this latest outbreak shows how budget cuts have hampered the ability of federal and state health agencies to effectively protect public health.

For more, we go to Washington, D.C., to Patty Lovera, assistant director of the food safety group Food & Water Watch.

Patty, welcome to Democracy Now! Describe the origins of this latest Salmonella outbreak.

PATTY LOVERA: Hi, good morning.

So, there’s always some activity that state health departments and then the federal government are tracking in terms of people who have what’s suspected to be a food-borne illness, and there’s always a kind of a monitoring effort going on. In this particular case, it took a really long time to tie a set of illnesses, that you mentioned started to spike this spring, to figure out a source of food that was causing them. And it takes a lot of legwork and a lot of, you know, kind of activity on the front lines, which is often local and state health departments, to figure that out. And in this particular case, it seemed to take a very long time to do that. And that’s one of the reasons the amount of food being recalled is so large, because they’re going back and saying the production of ground turkey from this plant from February into August has to be recalled, because the first person got sick in March. They’re kind of extrapolating from that first report. So it’s a huge amount of product because it’s a large plant. It’s also a huge amount of product because it’s such a long period of time where they think that there could have been a problem.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how does a recall work? I mean, we are talking about millions of pounds. What do you do when you’re walking into the supermarket? How does the recall happen?

PATTY LOVERA: That’s a good question. So, recalls are technically done by the company. You know, the federal government can lean heavily on a company to do it, but the company is the—Cargill is the one that put out this recall. Actually, last week, before the recall, the USDA, who’s in charge of meat and poultry inspection, they put out an advisory to the public saying, we think that we’re tying these illnesses to ground turkey, so we’re putting out this advice to, you know, use good precaution and, you know, think about cooking temperatures and things like that.

And we need to get more to the bottom of the timing of how all this happened and why it took so long, you know, to do that advisory and then also tie it to a product. But the recall—we don’t like to see recalls that happen this way because someone got sick. There are lots of recalls that happen because the company realizes, oh, something has gone wrong, we sent this product out, let’s get it back. This is not the kind you like to see, where you’re tracing backwards from people who’ve been made sick or, in this case, died.

AMY GOODMAN: But what do you do? You look in your freezer to see if you have what? Cargill turkey meat?

PATTY LOVERA: Exactly. And so, there’s places on the web where you can look up the specifics about this. We’re still getting information about where, what stores sold this product. But it will have an establishment number on it, so—all meat and poultry that’s inspected has a little code on it about what plant it came from. The plant number for this recall—I’m just looking—is P-963. That would be on these packages. And it’s ground turkey from that plant. So there’s a website called, where you can look up food recalls. And stores, hopefully, will be telling people, as well, and advertising it, but it’s best for folks to take a look themselves and see if they have this product.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also seeing some of the most extreme heat this country has known. Is there any relation between food poisoning, meat, and how it’s kept, and extreme weather? Is there something we have to watch out for here?

PATTY LOVERA: It’s another good question, and it’s a question we need to spend more time on and really get to the bottom of. I mean, it’s become kind of a, you know, a conventional wisdom or this assumption in people that work on food safety that there’s a recall every summer. There was a big recall last summer. It was the really massive egg recall. Other summers, it’s been produce. So, there is, you know, a lot of people talking about, why do we see more of this in the summer? You know, there’s some questions about, is it the types of food we eat in the summer? Do we eat more hamburgers? Do we eat more ground turkey and ground beef, which might be likely suspects for a problem like this? Is it that, you know, the animals have more pathogens in them when the weather gets warmer? Or is it handling? You know, when you’re taking food home from the grocery store, if it gets warm and, you know, it gets above kind of the safe temperatures you’re supposed to keep things in, bacteria could regrow. So it’s probably a combination of all those things, but it’s something we really should be looking more into. You know, when you’re talking about how to protect yourself from these products, you know, thorough cooking is the best, really, tool that consumers have. So, for ground turkey, using a meat thermometer and, you know, making sure you cook it to 165 degrees is the best thing that you can do, at the end of the line.

AMY GOODMAN: The idea that you should treat all meat as if it were contaminated with Salmonella. What does it say? Federal data shows 10 to 15 percent of ground turkey typically is contaminated with Salmonella. But that’s how you should treat it all, in the way you prepare food, if you’re going to eat it at all.

PATTY LOVERA: Right, and that’s kind of the best thing you can do for yourself. There’s lots of things we need to be doing in terms of our regulations and meat inspection and how we raise animals. There’s all kinds of changes to be made there. But day to day, you know, if you keep things separate, you keep things clean in your kitchen, and you make sure you’re cooking the meat to the safe temperature, is the best thing you can do, yourself.

AMY GOODMAN: Patty Lovera, let’s go to those larger issues about policy in this country. The Salmonella, Salmonella Heidelberg, a particularly antibiotic-resistant strain. What about animals injected with antibiotics?

PATTY LOVERA: So this is really—it’s not new, but it’s finally getting more attention, is this issue that most, the majority of, antibiotics in this country are actually used to raise livestock. They’re not used to treat sick people. And they’re actually used to promote the growth of livestock. They’re not necessarily used to treat them when they’re ill. They’re used to make them grow faster and deal with the tough environments they’re living in, on large, you know, factory farms.

And so, because of that, we’ve kind of created a situation that’s a really ideal environment for the bacteria to become resistant to the antibiotics, and we’re starting to see more and more problems, whether it’s in human diseases or in—now we’re seeing more and more bacteria popping up in food recalls, where they don’t respond to antibiotics. And this is just the latest example of that. So lots of folks working in the public health arena, you know, in the medical community, are very worried about why we are creating such ideal conditions where bacteria can learn to beat these drugs. And we don’t necessarily have new ones. This is—I mean, antibiotics are a really important resource. We shouldn’t necessarily be using them in this way that makes them ineffective.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about such large agribusiness companies, the meat giant Cargill, and what it means? When you have one area that’s contaminated, so many more people get sick.

PATTY LOVERA: It’s really becoming a theme in the kind of things we’re seeing in the food system. You know, we were having much of the same conversation about eggs last summer, when half a billion eggs got recalled from two plants in Iowa. You know, as we’ve consolidated our food system and consolidated agriculture, when something goes wrong in one place, in one plant, like we’re talking about all of this meat coming from one plant in Arkansas, and it can impact, you know, the entire country, when grocery stores across the country have to respond to something going wrong in one plant, that should give us pause to think about why we’ve structured our food system this way. We’ve really set the stakes very, very high, that if something goes wrong in one place, we no longer have a local or regional problem, we have a national problem.

And this has been happening year after year. We’re seeing this from peanut butter to spinach to eggs, you know, to meat. It’s something that’s happening in every part of the food supply. We’ve really lost a lot of the local and regional production, and now we have national production. And the industry constantly talks about how efficient and how great that is. And this is a very visible example of one of the costs of doing it that way.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about this one outbreak, but these figures—just as I was leaving my apartment today, I see an ad come up from the Ad Council and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, talking about how you should, you know, deal with meat and be very careful. And it says 3,000 people die a year of food poisoning. That’s more than eight people a day. Fifty million people take ill every year because of food poisoning? That’s 137,000 people a day. Patty?

PATTY LOVERA: Yeah, I mean, it really is kind of a staggering thing to tackle. And, you know, we have a lot of systems, and we have a lot of regulations in place, when it comes to meat and poultry. Obviously we need to be talking about how to make them work better. In other parts of the food supply, we don’t even have that much regulation. So I think it’s this kind of undiscussed, kind of constant thing that we’re—you know, that has become normal, and that’s really not acceptable.

And, you know, in the climate that we’re in right now, where everything the federal government does—and state governments have already gone down this road—is really kind of subject to budget cuts at this point, really, we really need to have a discussion about what programs you just shouldn’t be touching, what programs you shouldn’t cut, because the costs of not doing this regulation is too high. And we think this is one of these areas. So, you know, as Congress comes back this fall and they’re going to be in budget-cutting mode and nothing is really sacred, we need to be telling them, you know, food safety inspections, figuring out these food system problems, are not acceptable places to find these savings.

AMY GOODMAN: The CDC holding a news conference, talking about health departments being cut around the country. The direct correlation here, when you don’t have inspectors going out there, health departments, the Department of Agriculture, what is—and at the state level, what is Food & Water Watch calling for right now?

PATTY LOVERA: So, at this—I mean, we’ve been doing this—sadly, we’ve had to do this all year. I mean, the whole year of 2011 has been about trying to protect funding for vital programs like food safety. So, throughout this year, we’ve been calling on folks to get in touch with their members of Congress and say, you know, "Hands off of food safety programs, meat inspection, all of these vital programs." So we have plenty of actions on our website, where people can go and figure out how to do that. We’re going to need to do it again this fall. That’s pretty clear.

And so, you know, it’s something that people can talk to their members of Congress, who are home right now. They’ve finally left Washington, and they’re back at home, and you’re going to see them out and about. And we need to be talking to them and saying, "You don’t cut these programs." And then also we need to start finally tackling these larger issues about how we raise animals. There’s a bill in the House that would start to reduce some of the routine use of these antibiotics on livestock, that’s been—in Congress after Congress, it gets introduced. It’s time for folks to start moving on that. There’s a lot they should be doing to start to rein in these problems and to make sure that these basic safety nets don’t disappear.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, when it said that more than eight people a day, on average, die of food poisoning, is it known that it’s food poisoning? What is it identified as when someone dies of this, 3,000 people a year?

PATTY LOVERA: That’s a really good question, and it’s not—there’s no simple answer. It’s actually very—it’s a very multi-layered process. It’s kind of a complicated process to establish exactly who’s been made sick from food. So a lot of the numbers that we end up using are—sometimes are extrapolations from things that we know.

So when someone gets sick from food, lots of healthy—you know, healthy folks with good immune systems just kind of ride it out at home. They don’t feel well. They get through it. Not everybody even goes to a doctor. So, right there, you’ve lost a bunch of people that you’re not going to track. You know, you have to get sick enough to go to the doctor. The doctor has to tell the local health department. They have to tell the state health department. They have to tell the federal government. All of that takes time. And then you need the folks on the ground to go investigate and go ask questions about "What did you eat? Do you have any left? Can we test it?" And that’s what took so long in this case. And when you start to lose those front-line folks in, like, state health departments, it’s going to take longer to do that.

So we don’t have solid information. A lot of the information we have is a sample, and then there’s some extrapolation that happens from that. And there are some studies that have said, for every person that makes it into the system and gets counted as being sick, that up to 35 or 40 people might not have gotten counted, because they just kind of toughed it out at home.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch. When we come back, we’re going to look at a corporate-sponsored conference that’s taking place right now in New Orleans. About 2,000 people are there, as they write legislation that protects corporations. And we’ll talk about, well, an article that begins like this: "The breaded chicken patty your child bites into at school may have been made by a worker earning twenty cents an hour, not in a faraway country, but by a member of an invisible American workforce: prisoners." This is Democracy Now!, Patty Lovera of Food & Water Watch, thanks so much for joining us. We’ll be back in a minute.

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