Last week, my colleagues and I presented our research on foodborne outbreaks linked to salsa and guacamole. Recently, the number of these reported outbreaks has increased. Between 1998 and 2008, nearly 1 of every 25 outbreaks associated with restaurants or delis may have been caused by contaminated salsa or guacamole.
We received a lot of questions about our research and what it means for people who love salsa and guacamole. (We love them, too!) Here are some answers for consumers.
Should I stop eating salsa and guacamole?
We’re not suggesting that you stop eating these foods or stop eating at restaurants. These are popular foods across the United States and are served in a variety of restaurants and at home. We just want to stress how important it is that these foods are prepared and stored safely.
What kinds of illnesses were associated with these outbreaks?
Did your research show what contributed to these outbreaks?
Not in all cases, but there were some important clues. In 30 percent of the outbreaks, local investigators reported that the salsa or guacamole wasn’t stored or refrigerated properly. In another 20 percent, the investigators reported that food workers were the likely source of the contamination. In some cases, ingredients may have been contaminated before arriving in a kitchen.
Do you know which specific ingredients were contaminated?
We usually don’t know which ingredients were contaminated. But we do know that salsa and guacamole often contain diced raw produce, such as hot peppers, tomatoes, and cilantro. These ingredients have been implicated in past outbreaks.
Is there anything else about salsa or guacamole that makes it particularly likely to become contaminated?
Germs may grow to levels that can cause sickness if these foods are not prepared or stored safely in restaurants and homes. Also, salsa and guacamole are often made in large batches at restaurants, so even a small amount of contamination can affect many servings.
What about salsa that you buy at the store?
These outbreaks were not caused by commercially prepared (jarred) salsas that you would buy in a grocery store. Jarred salsas are usually heated to kill germs that may be present. Instead, most of the salsas we studied were freshly prepared.
Is homemade salsa or guacamole safe?
That depends on whether you follow these food safety rules:
- Before and after preparing food, wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap.
- Wash the ingredients thoroughly under running water. That includes ingredients that you plan to peel, such as avocados.
- Make sure that knives, cutting boards, containers, and other kitchen surfaces are clean.
- Keep the salsa or guacamole refrigerated until you serve it. Do not leave it out of the refrigerator for more than 2 hours. If the temperature is above 90 degrees, do not leave it out for more than 1 hour.
If you were eating out, what would you do to make sure these foods are safe?
If I were worried about the food safety practices in a restaurant, I would ask to see health department inspection results. I might also ask whether the restaurant has a manager who is certified in food safety. Some counties or states require this.
Shopping at a farmer's market is a great way to get locally-grown, fresh fruit, vegetables, and other foods for you and your family. From 2008 to 2009, the number of farmers' markets in the United States increased by more than 13 percent, a sign that fresh produce and other food items are becoming more accessible to all of us.
As these markets have grown more popular, we've been getting questions about the safety of the foods purchased there. Many markets have their own food safety rules, and vendors must comply with them, as well as any applicable government regulations. But, there are also basic guidelines that you should follow to ensure that the farm-fresh food is safe.
- Before and after preparing fresh produce, wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap.
- Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water just before eating, cutting or cooking. We don’t recommend washing fruits and vegetables with soap or detergent or using commercial produce washes.
- Even if you plan to peel the produce before eating, it is still important to wash it first. Any bacteria present on the outside of items like melons can be transferred to the inside when you cut or peel them.
- Be sure to refrigerate cut or peeled fruits and vegetables within two hours after preparation.
Juices and Cider
Check to see whether the juice or cider has been treated (pasteurized) to kill harmful bacteria. Pregnant women, children, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems should drink only pasteurized or treated juice. For more information, see Two Simple Steps to Juice Safety.
Milk and Cheeses
- Don’t buy milk at a farmer's market unless you can confirm that it has been pasteurized. Raw milk can harbor dangerous microorganisms, such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria, that can pose serious health risks to you and your family. See Myths about Raw Milk for details.
- Pregnant women, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems are at higher risk for illness caused by Listeria. One source for this bacteria is soft cheese made from unpasteurized milk. If you buy soft cheese (including feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined cheeses, queso blanco, queso fresco, and panela), check the label to make sure that it's made from pasteurized or treated milk.
- Make sure that eggs are properly chilled at the market. FDA requires that untreated shell eggs must be stored and displayed at 45°F.
- Before buying eggs, open the carton and make sure that the eggs are clean and the shells are not cracked.
- Make sure that the meat is properly chilled at the market. Meat should be kept in closed coolers with adequate amounts of ice to maintain cool temperatures.
- Bring an insulated bag or cooler with you to the market to keep meat cool on the way home.
- Be sure to keep meat separate from your other purchases, so that the juices from raw meat (which may contain harmful bacteria) do not come in contact with produce and other foods.
If you have comments about food safety at the farmer's market, feel free to submit them here. If you have a question and need an answer quickly, check the Ask the Experts page.
Family reunions and picnics are great for the heart and soul but sometimes not for the body. Many foodborne illness outbreaks have been traced to food served at large family gatherings, for a number of different reasons:
- Lots of cooks in the kitchen: From eccentric aunts to teenage trainees, cooks of varying food-handling skills have prepared the foods for the buffet or gathering. As a result, food may not have been cooked to a hot enough temperature to destroy bacteria, or it may have been left out in the temperature “Danger Zone” (40 to 140 ºF) where bacteria thrive.
- Warm summer days: Making the problem worse is that reunions and big family gatherings are often held in the summer. Bacteria grow and multiply faster in warm, summer months, including the harmful bacteria that can make you sick.
- The Great Outdoors: Another reason for the upswing in foodborne illnesses is reunions and gatherings are held outside when the weather is nice. The safety controls that a kitchen provides (such as thermostat-controlled cooking, refrigeration, and washing facilities) are usually not available.
Given these challenges, what’s the best way to ensure a food safe reunion? My advice is to get back to the basics: Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill.
Clean: Always wash your hands before and after handling food. If you’re outdoors and the site doesn’t have running water, bring water for preparation and cleaning; or pack clean, wet, disposable cloths or moist towelettes and paper towels for cleaning hands and surfaces.
Separate: Be smart and keep foods apart. Cross-contamination during preparation, grilling, and serving food is a prime cause of foodborne illness. Plan ahead and bring extra platters and utensils. Don’t let your favorite uncle take the raw burgers off a plate, grill them, and put them back on the same (unwashed) plate.
Cook: If you are cooking or bringing hot takeout foods, keep hot foods hot (140 ºF or above). Eat hot takeout food within 2 hours of pickup (that includes fried chicken!). Use a grill, campfire or portable stove to heat foods, and bring a food thermometer to make sure the food reaches safe temperatures. Check our Minimum Cooking Temperatures chart for details.
Chill: When you are enjoying food in the great outdoors, always keep cold foods cold (40 ºF or below). If you are traveling with cold foods, bring a cooler with a cold source.
Questions and Answers
Updated August 2, 2010
Q. If you get sick after eating food at a family reunion on a hot day, what is the sickness called besides "food poisoning"?
A. There are a number of different illnesses that result from eating contaminated food. Our Food Poisoning page provides links to details on the most common causes, including potential food sources.
Keep in mind that it's hard to know exactly which food caused the illness. As we discussed in our Complex Mystery blog, “When people get sick from food, they often assume the cause was the last thing they ate before they started feeling sick. That’s often not the case…. The cause could have been something they ate several days ago, something they might not even remember eating.”