Co-authored by Brian Gross

Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation (“Cargill”) recently announced the voluntary recall of approximately 36 million pounds of ground turkey believed to be contaminated with salmonella.  The recall represents approximately 6% of the national production of ground turkey in a given year.  Federal Health authorities have attempted for several months to determine the source of a multi-drug resistant Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak that has killed one person and sickened 111 others in 31 states.  Authorities had previously traced the outbreak to ground turkey, but only recently determined that the contamination occurred in ground turkey products produced at Cargill’s Springdale, Arkansas plant between February 20 and August 2, 2011.   Cargill has suspended all production at its Springdale plant and is working with Federal authorities to determine the source of the contamination.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) recently revealed that cultures of ground turkey taken between March 7 and June 27 from four different locations showed salmonella contamination, three of which were derived from the same source.  Additionally, a chart on the CDC’s website shows that multiple cases of illness have occurred each month since March, with the highest number of illnesses occurring in May and early June.   Despite determining that the illnesses of 77 individuals were related to the same strain of salmonella, Federal authorities were unable to prove a link to a specific source until now.

Salmonella is the most common bacterial form of food borne illness.  Symptoms typically include severe diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever within 72 hours of consumption.  Salmonella is generally not life-threatening, though it can be to those with weakened immune systems.  It is safe to eat contaminated ground turkey provided it is cooked to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees.  Consumers should be cognizant, however, of the potential risks of cross-contamination and be sure to wash their hands thoroughly as well as any surfaces which come into contact with meat.

As one can imagine, numerous lawsuits were recently filed by individuals allegedly sickened as a result of consuming the contaminated ground turkey processed by Cargill.  One such suit, brought by the law firm of Marler Clark on behalf of 2 Missouri residents, seeks punitive damages related to Cargill’s alleged failure to act despite knowledge that its product was contaminated.  An award of punitive damages, which is rare in food borne illness cases, would undoubtedly prompt increased litigation not only against Cargill, but also against any company whose contaminated products remain on the market for an extended period of time while government officials attempt to determine the source of the outbreak.  Such an award could also force manufacturers in future cases of potential contamination to take preemptive action and issue product recalls even before their product is definitively determined to be the source of the contamination.