US food safety officials discovered a form of salmonella at a Cargill plant last year but were legally unable to move for a recall of the meat until the bacteria caused illness among consumers.

On 29 July, Cargill recalled around 36m pounds of fresh and ground turkey products as part of an investigation into a fatal salmonella outbreak, which has sickened over 100 and killed one person.

The US Department of Agriculture conducted salmonella heidelberg testing in 2010 and had three positive results. However, a spokesperson said having a genetic match does not necessarily link salmonella to an outbreak. “In fact, most of them are not,” he said.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service told just-food yesterday (11 August) that it discovered four samples of contaminated turkey in retail stores with the same genetic fingerprint as the outbreak strain between June and July this year but, until it could link patient consumption and purchase to the outbreak, it was unable to act.

The USDA spokesperson said when it and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were able to determine the potential link at the end of June they took “immediate action”.

The CDC said yesterday that some 107 people have now become ill across 31 states. The death toll remains at one.

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According to the FSIS spokesperson, under current case law, salmonella is not considered to be an adulterant in raw products. “That is the framework in which we have to operate,” the spokesperson said.

However, the spokesperson added: “Regardless of the adulterant status of any pathogen and any regulatory or statutory constraints we operate under, it’s our responsibility to protect consumers from harm.” The FSIS, the spokesperson added, is “actively pursuing how best to reduce illnesses from salmonella”.

Cargill’s recall is said to be one of the largest in the history of the US meat sector. A spokesperson said the company was “sorry that anyone became ill from eating our ground turkey products” and added: “We are focusing considerable resources on measures that will help prevent a recurrence.”

The ground turkey operations at Cargill’s Springdale facility have not been restarted, he said. The remainder of the facility, which processes whole birds, bone-in breasts, and other products, was never closed. He emphasised that the company has produced ground turkey at the Springdale, Arkansas facility for 25 years without a prior food safety issue.

He said that Cargill has not yet been able to assess the overall impact of the recall on its overall business. The 36m pounds that has been recalled represents around 4% of the total turkey volume the company produces annually in the US.