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Bad Bird

Indicators: Aug. 10

August 10, 2011, 12:00 am

36 million is the number of pounds of turkey recalled from distributors in New Mexico and 25 other states due to Salmonella Heidelberg contamination.

1 is the number of larger meat recalls in US history.

Heidelberg is found in humans; it’s found in pigs; it’s found in poultry. It’s one of those [Salmonella strains] that has done a good job in spreading its tentacles around in
different hosts. The [strains] that do a good job in spreading in different hosts are the ones that spread fast.
—Siddhartha Thakur, professor of Population Health and Pathobiology at North Carolina State University

The virulent Heidelberg Salmonella strain that has so far caused illness in 79 people around the country is drawing comparisons to a separate strain, Salmonella Kentucky, which is the focus of a just-released study in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.

In that study, researchers find that Salmonella Kentucky has been making the rounds in the US, Europe, the Middle East and Africa since 2002 and has developed resistance to an antibiotic used in livestock. Such an extensive study on Salmonella Heidelberg hasn’t been conducted yet, but it shares the same tendency to spread between humans and animals, and it is the second-most common strain to be found in turkey.

“Whenever something is restricted [to humans], we can eradicate it by public health measures,” Andreas Bäumler, a professor of microbiology and immunology at University of California Davis, says. “But some sparrow on the fence can have it, and how are you going to make sure that guy doesn’t spread it?” 

Thakur says vaccinating meat animals—a practice already in place for poultry in England—may be the next move for food producers. Typhoid fever, which is caused by a different strain of Salmonella, was eradicated in the US by administering vaccines to humans. But since the Heidelberg strain, unlike typhoid, infects animals, the source livestock would have to be targeted instead of the potential human victims. 

“In the US, we definitely think there’s going to be a movement [toward vaccines] because, at some stage, you’re going to have to start believing that prevention is better than cure,” Thakur says.


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