Salmonella outbreak strikes 26 states: How to stay safe

A map of the recent salmonella outbreak that's hit 26 states, infecting 77 people
salmonella, outbreak, CDC, USDA
A map of the recent salmonella outbreak that's hit 26 states, infecting 77 people

(CBS/AP) Government investigators are still looking for the source of a salmonella outbreak that sickened 76 people and killed a Calif. resident.

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The USDA and CDC believe the outbreak that spread across 26 states is linked to tainted ground turkey. Cargill, a Minnesota-based meat company, said Tuesday that it has been contacted by the USDA as part of the investigation, but has not been named as the culprit.

The illnesses date back to March, and the CDC said Monday that cultures of ground turkey from four retail locations between March 7 and June 27 showed contamination with the same strain of salmonella, but couldn't specifically link them to the illnesses. The preliminary investigation showed that three of those samples were linked to the same factory, but the agency has yet to name the retailers or the manufacturers.

Why is there such a lack of government information on this outbreak? It may be because USDA rules make it hard to investigate and recall salmonella-tainted poultry. Salmonella is common in poultry, so it's not illegal for meat to be tainted with the pathogen. So officials must directly link the salmonella illnesses with a certain producer or establishment. That's difficult to do because people don't always remember what they ate or where they got it from.

Officials in this case haven't been able to prove the link between the salmonella samples they found - despite them being the same strain and the 77 infections. The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) sent out an alert about the illnesses late last week telling consumers to properly cook their turkey, which can decrease risks for salmonella poisoning, but hasn't issued warnings about the source of the infection.

"There is little epidemiological information available at this time that conclusively links these illnesses to any specific product or establishment," said FSIS spokesman Neil Gaffney. "Without specific enough data, it would not be appropriate to issue a recall notice."

But the outbreak keeps spreading. Michigan and Ohio reported the highest number of illnesses with 10 each, while Texas reported nine. Illinois had seven, California six and Pennsylvania five.

Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wisconsin are states with at least one illness. Some cases may not have been reported yet.

The CDC says it can take three to four weeks to confirm a single case and identifying an outbreak can take considerably longer than that.

What can you do to protect your family? Make sure their meat is cooked properly - ground turkey is safe to eat when its internal temperature reaches 165 degrees during cooking. The USDA also recommends washing hands for at least 20 seconds before and after handling raw meat or poultry, and refrigerating it promptly after use.

About 50 million Americans get sick from food poisoning each year resulting in 3,000 deaths, and salmonella is the culprit behind most of these cases. Common symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever within eight hours to 72 hours of eating a salmonella- tainted product. The infection can be deadly for those with weakened immune systems like the children and elderly.

The CDC has more on salmonella.