It is hardly surprising that Cargill’s ground turkey is at the center of the latest outbreak of salmonella bacteria that has infected at least 77 people in 26 states, hospitalizing more than a third of victims and killing one. For one thing, ground meat from this company has been the source of multiple outbreaks over the past decade. For another, federal health officials have been tracking the ground turkey coming from the plant for weeks, and have now been able to confirm that two cases in the same state were related to the Cargill plant.
Resistant bacteria are more difficult to treat, leading to salmonella in the blood and automatic hospital admission. At the same time that this outbreak of Salmonella “Heidelberg” is occurring, French researchers have published a study about another resistant salmonella strain from poultry, S. Kentucky, which has led to at least 500 cases in Europe and is resistant to the commonly used antibiotic Cipro as well as many other treatments.
So how do we get to the point where salmonella swarm, leading the USDA to ask for the recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey?
Here’s how: Commercially grown turkeys are fed antibiotics which breed resistant bacteria in their intestines. These bacteria survive based on Darwinian principles and soon spread via fecal contamination from turkey to turkey because they are raised in overcrowded squalid conditions. Close to 300 million turkeys are raised for slaughter in the U.S. every year, and it isn’t pretty. The birds are routinely abused by handlers.
Male turkeys (toms) used for breeding are milked for their sperm in a process that is often contaminated with salmonella. The hens are genetically engineered to have larger breasts and during “breeding” are literally hung upside down and artificially inseminated in a cruel process which often introduces these salmonella into their reproductive tracks where it can be passed along to eggs and offspring.
What to do?
Beyond dramatically improving the conditions for raising turkeys for meat, what can we do as consumers? Cooking turkey to more than 160 degrees Fahrenheit kills the bacteria, but there is also the risk of contaminating utensils, plates, and cooking surfaces prior to cooking. One to three days after exposure, consumers can be on the lookout for the characteristic symptoms of fever, diarrhea, and abdominal cramping. The toxins that the bacteria produces makes us sick. The key to treatment is usually hydration, and in the majority of cases the body’s own immune defenses fights off the bacteria and antibiotics aren’t necessary. But older patients, infants, and those who are immuno-compromised are more likely to get sicker and prompt use of antibiotics is more often needed.
What can doctors do if antibiotics don't work for certain strains of salmonella?
Even the most resistant strains of salmonella generally have a few antibiotics that work for them. When bacteria are resistant to routinely used oral medicines as in this case, it may be prudent to hospitalize the patient (especially if they are immuno-compromised) more quickly and turn to intravenous antibiotics.
What is the medical community facing in the future if our antibiotics start to not work for common infections?
Antibiotic resistance is becoming more and more of a problem. In my opinion we in the scientific community need to respond quickly to fight the development of antibiotic resistance by urging - 1 - stop treating commercially grown animals with so many antibiotics as a preventive. 2 - stop prescribing so many antibiotics to people and pets in the community. 3 - increase drug company incentives for developing new antibiotics – these drugs are NOT profitable because they aren't used frequently – only when unless someone is infected. 4 - improve and extend the use of disinfectants in the hospital and the community.
As always during an outbreak of this kind, the greatest pathogen is fear. It is wise to be cautious, wise to cook turkey carefully and disinfect potentially contaminated surfaces, but with only 77 cases nationwide, the chances of you or I becoming ill from the turkey we eat remains extremely low.
So rather than produce panic, a more important and satisfying outcome to this outbreak would be to shine a spotlight on the cruel conditions that turkeys face which causes salmonella to thrive and swarm in the first place.
Marc Siegel MD is an associate professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Medical Center. He is a Fox News Medical Contributor and author of The Inner Pulse; Unlocking the Secret Code of Sickness and Health