WASHINGTON (AP) — Once again, American families are wondering whether to eat a normally reliable, healthy food. This time it's ground turkey.
It's been implicated in the latest food poisoning outbreak, one that has killed one person, in California, and sickened at least 76 others, including children. Why hasn't the government ordered a recall? It doesn't know the source of the salmonella that's causing the illness.
Cook that turkey, officials say in the meantime. Cooking it thoroughly — to 165 degrees — is the one reliable way to kill the germ.
Is it safe to eat then? "If you cook food properly it is," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Associated Press on Wednesday after speaking to a group of food safety experts in Milwaukee. "That's the key."
But that still may not calm everyone's concerns, he acknowledged.
"If there's any question, then toss it out," Vilsack said. "It's better to be safe than sorry."
Consumers have plenty of questions.
Seventy-five-year-old Beverly Pounds, buying groceries for lunch Wednesday at a Kroger supermarket in Atlanta, said she learned about the salmonella scare in her local newspaper and decided she would not buy ground turkey for the time being. She typically bakes ground turkey in her meatloaf and uses it to make spaghetti sauce.
She said she wasn't sure whether thoroughly cooking ground turkey would kill all of the harmful bacteria.
"I don't know whether there are some salmonella (strains) that will die if it reaches a certain temperature or it won't," she said.
Grocery stores say they are passing the food safety tips on to concerned customers and letting them know the latest word from the government. Kroger stores have brochures available on how to properly cook meat.
The Agriculture Department, which oversees meat safety, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that properly cooking ground turkey ensures its safety. But it's also important that raw meat be handled properly before it is cooked and that people wash their hands with soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling the meat. Turkey and other meats should also be properly refrigerated or frozen and leftovers heated.
Ground turkey has risen in popularity as health-conscious diners see it as an alternative to ground beef. Even fast-food chains such as Hardee's have added it to their menus. Sherrie Rosenblatt of the National Turkey Federation in Washington said it is one of the largest areas of growth in the industry.
It is too early to measure the effect on current sales of ground turkey, but foodborne illness outbreaks reliably prompt a dip in industry sales. Other healthful foods such as lettuce and sprouts have seen outbreaks in recent years.
The Agriculture Department and CDC say they are scrambling to trace the new problem.
"We are obviously working with our producer partners to try to identify the source so we can be more specific and encourage the industry to recall the contaminated source," Vilsack said Wednesday. "We are hopeful we get to that answer very, very soon."
He said the process is complicated because ground turkey is in so many different products.
"We want to make sure we are right about it," he said.
Illnesses in the outbreak 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, though those samples were not specifically linked to the illnesses. The CDC said preliminary information showed that three of those samples have been linked to the same production establishment, but it did not name the retailers or the manufacturers.
A spokesman for the Minnesota-based meat company Cargill said Tuesday that it had been contacted by the Agriculture Department as part of the investigation and was cooperating. It is so far unclear if salmonella samples were traced back to any of the company's plants.
California health officials said Tuesday that the one death in the outbreak was in Sacramento County. Seventy-six people in 26 states coast to coast have been made sick from the same strain of the disease.
The CDC estimates that 50 million Americans each year get sick from food poisoning, including about 3,000 who die. Salmonella causes most of these cases, and federal health officials say they've made virtually no progress against it.
The most common symptoms of salmonella are diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever within eight hours to 72 hours of eating a contaminated product. It can be life-threatening to some with weakened immune systems.
While shopping at a Los Angeles grocery store Wednesday, Nibal Mahmoud, 34, said the current outbreak will curb her ground turkey purchases, but she already takes extra precautions against salmonella after getting it about seven years ago, possibly from a bad piece of chicken.
"I cook the heck out of everything," said Mahmoud. "I'm sure that I take chicken to a whole other level that it doesn't need to go, but that's how I feel comfortable."
Mahmoud said she typically substitutes ground turkey for ground beef in her homemade spaghetti sauces to make the dish more healthful. But she said she'll avoid it for her family until the current cases are cleared up.
Associated Press writers Carrie Antlfinger in Milwaukee, Shaya Tayefe Mohajer in Los Angeles and Ray Henry in Atlanta and Sarah Skidmore in Portland, Ore., contributed to this report.
CDC info on salmonella in ground turkey: http://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/heidelberg/080111/index.html
Find Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MCJalonick