An outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg linked to chicken has sickened nearly 100 people in Washington and Oregon since June of 2012, health officials announced Thursday.

A total of 43 illnesses in Oregon and 56 in Washington are known to have been caused by the outbreak strain of the bacteria, which was traced to chicken from Kelso, WA-based Foster Farms. No new cases have been reported since December of 2012, according to a representative from the Washington State Department of Health. However, health officials still consider the outbreak to be ongoing, which is why they decided to alert the public. Both WSDH and the Oregon Health Authority issued press releases Thursday in the hopes the public will take steps to properly prepare chicken to avoid getting sick. The public announcements are also designed to catch new cases, said Tim Church, Director of Communications for WSDH. “It’s not finished, and part of the reason we’re going public is to make people aware,” Church told Food Safety News. “The symptoms of Salmonella can be interpreted by some people as the ‘stomach flu,’ so we want to make sure people know that this is out there because we may still have people who are getting sick from eating chicken and not even knowing it because they just aren’t putting two and two together.” Symtoms of salmonellosis – the disease caused by Salmonella – begin about 12 to 72 hours after exposure and include stomach cramps, diarrhea and fever. The illness usually resolves itself in about a week, but it may be more serious in young children, the elderly or those with weak immune systems. People experiencing symptoms of salmonellosis should contact a healthcare provider. Of course, the best case scenario is avoiding illness in the first place, Church noted. “We also want people to make sure they’re being smart and taking steps to avoid cross-contamination, making sure they’re cooking their chicken to proper temperatures and handling it correctly, because it’s such a big part of this.” For the time being, avoiding a certain chicken product is not an option for preventing illness. No Foster Farms products have been recalled as a result of the outbreak to date. For those worried about eating product from Foster Farms, Church has the following advice: “Salmonella is something that is in chicken; not in all chicken, but it is found in chicken. While our cases we’ve tracked in this current outbreak are connected to Foster Farms, we know that certainly Salmonella is a much broader issue than this. That’s why we’re focusing heavily on making sure the public knows what they should be doing to protect themselves at home.” The number of Salmonella Heidelberg infections reported in 2012 in Oregon was markedly higher in 2012 than in the previous years, according to a statement from OHA. Between 2007 and 2011, an average of 27 cases were recorded annually. But in 2012, 56 cases of this Salmonella strain were reported, 43 of which were linked to the Foster Farms outbreak. WSDH did not have data on past Salmonella Heidelberg infections imediately available, but Washington saw 85 total reported Salmonella Heidelberg infections in 2012. Health officials recommend the following steps for safe preparation of raw poultry:

  • Keep raw poultry separate from other foods (especially fruits and vegetables) in your shopping cart, grocery bags, and refrigerator. Put poultry into a plastic bag to prevent drips that may contaminate other food.
  • Be careful not to let drippings from poultry, packaging, cutting boards, or utensils, contaminate dishes or other surfaces in your kitchen. Cross-contamination can be a source of illness for anyone, even people who don’t eat poultry.
  • Always wash your hands after handling poultry.
  • Use warm water, soap and paper towels for hands and a mild bleach (1 teaspoon bleach per gallon of water) solution to sanitize utensils, cutting surfaces, and countertops. Keep raw poultry and anything it comes in contact with separated from other foods.
  • Be sure poultry is thawed before cooking. Frozen or partially frozen meat is easy to undercook.
  • Cook poultry to 165 degrees F.