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Nov. 18, 1999 (Washington) -- When family and friends gather around the Thanksgiving table next week, the last thing they want to think about is food poisoning. However, an annual survey of turkey safety shows that although progress is being made, consumers need to take precautions against potentially lethal bacterial infections.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) did an analysis of 50 turkeys purchased during the last few weeks in Chicago, Miami, Washington, New York, and Los Angeles. The birds were selected from different stores and were equally divided between fresh and frozen. Kosher and organic turkeys were also represented among the brands tested. The findings were released at a news conference here Thursday.

According to CSPI, 28% of the fresh turkeys were contaminated by Campylobacter bacteria vs. 4% for the frozen fowl. Overall, 16% of the birds tested were Campylobacter positive vs. a 90% rate in a survey conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) two years ago.

California turkeys had the highest rate of Campylobacter infection, which can cause cramping, diarrhea, fever, and, in rare cases, death. "Most surprising of all, not one of the 50 turkeys was contaminated with Salmonella. Thus, the new hazard control systems in turkey plants appear to be reducing Salmonella," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, CSPI's director of food safety. California's contamination rate may be related to a warmer climate and, possibly, differences in food handling practices, she says.

CSPI, the group noted for warning about the nutritional evils of such favorites as theatre popcorn and Chinese food, says the turkey survey is good news but nothing to gobble about, because it covered such a small sample. The findings can't be considered definitive. Still, says DeWaal, "Both the Salmonella results and the Campylobacter results are far better than we expected."

According to the CDC, Campylobacter and Salmonella account for half the deaths and most of the serious infections linked to food poisonings in fowl in the U.S. "Salmonella is much more likely to go to the bloodstream, and much more likely to kill people," says Judy Johnson, PhD, a University of Maryland pathologist who spoke at the news conference.

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