Since March 9, 2011, a strain of Salmonella Heidelberg that is resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics has sickened 77 people in 26 states. Twenty-two (38%) of the 58 people for whom the information is available have been hospitalized.

Thus far, illnesses have been reported from Alabama (1), Arizona (2), California (6), Georgia (1), Iowa (1), Illinois (7), Indiana (1), Kentucky (2), Louisiana (1), Massachusetts (1), Michigan (10), Minnesota (1), Missouri (2), Mississippi (1), New York (2), North Carolina (1), Nebraska (2), Nevada (1), Ohio (10), Oklahoma (1), Oregon (1), Pennsylvania (5), South Dakota (3), Tennessee (2), Texas (9), and Wisconsin (3).

The illnesses have been linked to the consumption of ground turkey from an as-yet unidentified source. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued a Public Health Alert for Frozen, Fresh Ground Turkey Products on July 29th. Nearly one-half (49%) of the outbreak victims with available information reported having eaten ground turkey in the 7 days before they were interviewed.

According to CDC, cultures of four ground turkey samples – purchased between March 7th and June 27th from retail locations as part of the government’s National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System – were positive for Salmonella Heidelberg. Three of the four samples proved to be from a common production facility. The source of the fourth sample is still being determined. None of the four products that were found to contain Salmonella Heidelberg have been linked specifically to illnesses.

This is the second Salmonella outbreak in 2011 that is linked to the consumption of ground turkey products. As of April 1, 2011, twelve people in ten states were infected with an antibiotic-resistant strain of Salmonella Hadar after consuming turkey burgers from Jennie-O Turkey Store® inWillmar, MN. The poultry processor recalled 54,960 pounds of frozen, raw turkey burger products after samples of the burgers tested positive for the outbreak strain. State labs reported that the Salmonella Hadar outbreak strain was resistant to ampicillin, amoxicinnin/clavulanate, cephalothin and tetracycline.

The source of the Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak has not yet been identified; at least, its identity hasn’t been revealed. And no new recall of ground turkey products has been announced.

Ground turkey – like ground chicken – is a high risk food for Salmonella contamination. While turkey meat is perceived to be a healthy choice compared to ground beef, the relatively high baseline level of Salmonella in poultry products raises substantially the risk of undercooking and cross-contamination during handling.

CDC and FSIS are reminding consumers that, for safety, raw ground poultry must be cooked to an internal temperature of 165ºF – and that the final temperature must be verified using a meat thermometer. Neither cooking for a specific number of minutes nor relying on the color of the meat, is a safe way to determine when ground poultry – or any raw meat – has been thoroughly cooked.

More information on the source of the contaminated ground turkey products should become available soon. Federal, state and local agencies are collecting and collating additional product information – including date and location of purchase of ground turkey meat – from outbreak victims as part of their traceback investigation.

Meanwhile, CDC offers the following advice to consumers, retailers and other food handlers:

  • Wash hands, kitchen work surfaces, and utensils with soap and water immediately after they have been in contact with raw meat or poultry including frozen, fresh ground turkey. Then, disinfect the food contact surfaces using a freshly prepared solution of 1 tablespoon unscented liquid chlorine bleach to 1 gallon of water.
  • Cook poultry thoroughly. Ground turkey and ground turkey dishes should always be cooked to 165 °F internal temperature as measured with a food thermometer; leftovers also should be reheated to 165 °F. The color of cooked poultry is not always a sure sign of its safety. Only by using a food thermometer can one accurately determine that poultry has reached a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F throughout the product. Turkey can remain pink even after cooking to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F. The meat of smoked turkey is always pink. Be particularly careful with foods prepared for infants, older adults, and persons with impaired immune systems. For more information, please see this FSIS fact sheet about safe food handling.
  • If served undercooked poultry in a restaurant, send it back to the kitchen for further cooking.
  • Cross-contamination of foods should be avoided. Uncooked meats should be kept separate from produce, cooked foods, and ready-to-eat foods. Hands, cutting boards, counters, knives, and other utensils should be washed thoroughly after touching uncooked foods. Hands should be washed before handling food, and between handling different food items.
  • Refrigerate raw and cooked meat and poultry within 2 hours after purchase (one hour if temperatures exceed 90° F). Refrigerate cooked meat and poultry within two hours after cooking. Refrigerators should be set to maintain a temperature of 40 °F or below.
  • Persons who think they might have become ill from eating possibly contaminated ground turkey should consult their health care providers. Infants, older adults, and persons with impaired immune systems are more likely than others to develop severe illness.