It’s fine to buy Thanksgiving turkeys, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reassured the American public. You just have to make sure you keep everything absolutely clean and wash everything that touches the raw bird -- especially your hands -- in case of salmonella.
The assurance came after tainted birds sickened at least 164 people in 35 states weeks before the holiday feasts began, sending dozens to the hospital and killing one Californian. Drug-resistant salmonella was found in ground turkey, turkey burgers, turkey-based pet food and the whole birds that make it to most Thanksgiving tables.
Jennie-O recalled more than 90,000 pounds of ground turkey and other products, but the USDA has refused to name all of the companies and products involved, saying the problem is widespread and it would be unfair to name a single supplier. The first drug-resistant contamination cases were discovered around Thanksgiving last year, leading to a public service announcement in July 2018.
So how about naming all the known suppliers and keeping the public informed on exactly what is known at each step? What about what’s fair to the consumer rather than to the turkey producer?
The industry and the government agency tasked with protecting consumers have shifted too much of the burden for food safety to the public, especially when it comes to poultry.
Just be extra-careful, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises. Use two thermometers, the USDA recommends: one for the refrigerator and one for the oven, and the latter should be inserted in three separate spots on the bird. Continual sanitizing of your own hands, your sponges and washcloths and anything that touches the turkey. Separate cutting boards, plates and utensils just for the poultry. And the salt and herbs rubbed on the chicken need to be placed in their own bowl to avoid contaminating the jar of sage after the herb is rubbed on the turkey.
Studies of home cooks have found that even though people think they’re being careful in the kitchen, various food-safety mistakes are extremely common.
So yes, we need to know more about and practice better food safety in our kitchens. But it shouldn’t be the home cook’s responsibility to keep a kitchen so sanitary it would make a surgeon proud.
We have come to accept the idea that salmonella is common in many of our poultry products. We shouldn’t, even in poultry that is industrially farmed.
The USDA has found that a fourth of all chicken parts were contaminated; it adopted new rules in early 2016 to reduce that to 15 percent. Somehow, that number fails to excite.
For a better way, look to Sweden, which has nearly eliminated salmonella in poultry even though most chickens in the country are raised and processed in large industrial facilities.
In the United States, attempts to eradicate salmonella have focused on irradiatiating carcasses in processing plants using antimicrobial sprays.
Sweden’s inspection process for contaminants focuses on farms, starting with hatcheries. Infected eggs or animals are destroyed, and that’s just the start of a mandated cleaning and inspection procedure. The facility cannot ship anything until all its other animals have been found to be free of salmonella. It’s a process that also fights drug-resistant salmonella, which might be able to withstand the antimicrobial sprays. The poultry industry pays for the process.
Of course, the Swedish method might make poultry more expensive, but let’s not kid ourselves: Salmonella is expensive, too.
According to the CDC, salmonella – most of it foodborne – sickens 1.2 million Americans each year. Of those, 23,000 are hospitalized and 450 die. In 2014, the USDA put the annual dollar cost at close to $3.7 billion.
Back in 2005, USDA microbiologist J. Stan Bailey acknowledged the success of the Swedish program and suggested the United States might need to consider at least some similar steps.
“If you don’t allow [salmonella] in, you don’t have it in your breeder stock, you don’t have it in your environment, you have good biosecurity; then you can’t have any salmonella,” he said. “Then you test the program, and if you have any, then you kill the birds.”
We’re still waiting. Meanwhile, cook the hell out of that turkey.