A new outbreak of salmonella, the bacteria that causes nasty diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps, has the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scrambling to discover the source, which is almost certainly a food that's been sold around the country. So far, 388 people have been reported sick in 42 states, in an outbreak that's been going on since last fall.
Salmonella is one bad bug you don't want to get, particularly because it can cause serious illness or death in young children, the elderly, and people with impaired immune systems. Finding a source can take weeks, because the CDC has to interview people who got sick, try to pinpoint what they ate, and then compare the lists. Until we know the cause, here's how to reduce the risk of getting sick, based on advice from the CDC and infectious disease experts.
Eat well-cooked food. In recent years, some of the nastiest food poisoning outbreaks have been caused by fresh fruit and veggies—canteloupes and jalapeño peppers last year, and spinach in 2006. Washing doesn't solve the problem, since pathogens can get inside the nooks and crannies of a cantaloupe rind, for example. There's also evidence that leafy greens and tomatoes can slurp bacteria into their cells along with water, either in the field or during processing. As Doug Powell, director of the International Food Safety Network at Kansas State University, says: "Washing's not enough. You gotta cook it." If you're worried, sautéed spinach is a better bet than salad. Cooking meats thoroughly eliminates pathogens common in chicken and ground beef.
Don't presume that organic means safe. Organic standards don't deal with bacteria, and in the nasty 2006 E. coli outbreak in spinach, organic spinach was among the culprits. Many organic foods are now grown overseas, where oversight is skimpy at best. So, buying organic is no excuse to slack off on safe food handling practices.
Keep a squeaky-clean kitchen. Chicken is one common food that's almost always contaminated with bad bugs, and it's easy to spread the bacteria to other foods via knives, cutting boards, and hands. Food-safety experts recommend keeping raw chicken and meats away from foods that aren't going to be cooked, and washing cutting boards and utensils with hot soapy water. Some cooks use a bleach rinse on cutting boards, while others reserve a cutting board for raw meats only. This primer on common sources of food poisoning gives the lowdown on banishing bad bugs from the kitchen. Here's the link for CDC updates on the salmonella outbreak.