As a ravenous consumer of fresh guacamole and chips, I found today’s article from regarding the connection between restaurant-sourced foodborne illness due to salsa and guacamole consumption particularly interesting, and a bit disquieting.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 136 outbreaks from 1998 to 2008 in restaurants were confirmed or suspected to be from salsa, guacamole or pico de gallo, and included 12 pathogens such as salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, shigella, hepatitis A and norovirus. Three deaths were associated with the outbreaks.  The article continues:

The analysis did not explore specific reasons how salsa and guacamole became contaminated, but Dr. Rajal Mody, a medical epidemiologist with the CDC in the division that researches foodborne and environmental diseases, said the existing scientific literature provides some clues.

“Salsa and guacamole are made in large batches,” he said. “Small amounts of contamination can affect lots of servings. There is the potential that salsa and guacamole are not properly refrigerated. And we know salsa and guacamole are often made from diced fresh produce items- tomatoes, cilantro, peppers, which we know have been implicated as sources in past outbreaks.”

Improper storage times and temperatures were reported in about 30 percent of these restaurants, according to the research. In 20 percent of these salsa-and-guacamole-related incidents, the food workers were reported as the source of contamination.

Consumers who want to minimize risks should see whether the restaurant posts their environmental inspection score, Mody suggested.

“Ideally, our work here generates some interest in safe handling of salsa and guacamole,” he said. “Just like in a restaurant kitchen, people making salsa at home should follow good safety practices. It’s pretty basic. Clean your food, separate it as you prepare it, cook it and chill.”

The CDC presented these findings Monday at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases.