Question:  What has changed since Cargill’s August and September 2011 ground turkey recalls? (Read: What the Salmonella Heidelberg recalls say about food safety: A year later)

Mike Robach:  That covers a lot of ground. Initially, we tried to determine what happened, focusing on the “how” and the “why.” In early August 2011, after piecing together information from the United Sates Department of Agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control and state health departments, it became clear to Cargill that our products were implicated in a potential outbreak of SalmonellaHeidelberg-related illnesses. In less than 48 hours – the time it took to confirm this information and organize an action plan – we initiated a voluntary recall of ground turkey products produced at Springdale, [Ark.,] from February to August 2011.

Question:  What immediate action did Cargill take after learning that its turkey products were implicated in the human illnesses?

Robach:  The August 3 recall turned out to be the largest poultry meat recall in U.S. history – 36 million pounds – and we spared nothing to alert the consuming public, our customers, our employees and rapidly recover as much of the potentially impacted product as possible. We also took the additional step of publicly apologizing to anyone who may have become ill from eating one of our ground turkey products, although scientific evidence pointed to multiple sources of SalmonellaHeidelberg illnesses during the period of time associated with the outbreak.

Question:  What steps involving food safety did Cargill take following the turkey recalls?

Robach:  Cargill took a number of tactical actions in an overall strategy aimed at addressing how to deal with such a daunting challenge (see sidebar, “Food safety action following the 2011 turkey recalls”). We formed an independent panel of food safety experts to review our processes and practices and make recommendations. We also reviewed those recommendations which validated our existing practices and processes, and we enhanced others. Additionally, we closely examined the entire supply chain to determine what, if any, additional steps could be taken to further reduce both the presence and prevalence of Salmonella.

Plus, we explored numerous technologies including high pressure processing, next generation vaccines, and emerging technologies such as biosensors developed by the Department of Homeland security, as well as revisiting irradiation. We’re working with university, government and private researchers to accelerate the development of new technologies.

Question:  What else has changed since the recalls?

Robach:  Communication among key stakeholders – including USDA, CDC, Cargill and industry peers, poultry trade associations, academics and universities and consumer groups – continues to evolve and improve as we all work toward a common goal of improving public health and food safety. We all understand that when there is a potential issue, the earlier information is shared, the opportunity to move quickly to identify a source and remove potentially impacted product from the marketplace should result in a better public health outcome.

Over the past year we have experienced an earlier exchange of information, which benefits everyone when attempting to mitigate the potential impact from foodborne illnesses. We believe this is only going to improve due to more open lines of communication that have been established.

Additionally, the industry has pulled together and assembled a team of experts to gather data and share information and processes aimed at improving the overall safety of ground meats, much as the ground beef industry did after E. coli O157: H7 was declared an adulterant in 1994.

Question:  What was the biggest challenge in conducting the investigation to track down the source?

Robach:  We found out how difficult it is to track down the source, which we have not yet been able to do. In examining the entire supply chain, it became apparent that we could not find a consistent correlation between the live side and the finished product.

We continue to work at a better understanding about how Salmonella gets into the supply chain and what can be done to mitigate bacteria that pose a human health risk. We’ve looked at both the presence and prevalence of Salmonella in turkey and are trying to also understand how Salmonella survives, multiplies and moves within the supply chain.

In many ways this is as big a challenge as anything encountered on TV by the CSI investigators. We’ve also learned more about the magnitude of the resources that must be deployed to deal with the complexities that exist in the natural world and the fact that bacteria don’t read regulations and don’t seem to have rules. We deployed many scientists, technicians, subject matter experts and other professionals and are leaving no stone unturned in our ongoing efforts to find solutions.

Question:  Is there one most significant lesson learned that makes a difference in the food safety of poultry?

Robach:  The biggest lesson is to understand the process and make sure that the interventions in the plants are operating the way that they are intended to operate. It’s keeping the focus on controlling the process and using the data that is developed to help do that. It is also taking a very systematic approach from the breeder to the hatchery to the feed mill to the grow-out houses to transportation to slaughter to chilling to cut-up and to grinding. That involves looking at the process holistically and understanding the dynamics at each step of the process.

Question:  Is there a silver bullet?

Robach:  That’s the $64,000 question. Everyone is looking. If there were an easy answer, we would all be using it. There’s no upside to foodborne illnesses and recalls, and we would all sleep a lot easier if we had a silver bullet solution. The only certain answer at the moment is to ensure that ground products are properly cooked to 165F using a thermometer to confirm the interior temperature.

We’ve looked at irradiation, but for ground turkey it renders the product unsalable. We’ve looked at high pressure processing, which also alters the appearance and other attributes of the product, and we’ve looked at a number of technologies that are still in the development phase.

When a silver bullet is identified, we won’t hesitate to begin testing it, but for now we continue to employ technologies that give us the best shot at minimizing foodborne illnesses. As daunting as dealing with naturally occurring bacteria can be, our resolve has been strengthened to identify and employ technologies and processes to further reduce the potential human health risk from harmful bacteria. Collectively, everyone from farm to fork plays a role that contributes to food safety.