Killer Salsa: Why is the CDC Picking on Our Favorite Dips?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week did its best to dampen summer fun by linking salsa to food poisoning. According to the much-quoted press release, one out of every 25 cases of foodborne illnesses picked up at restaurants originates in a bowl of salsa or guacamole.

I have no doubt that mishandled dips make diners sick, but demonizing salsa and guac -- which sounds like a tactic cooked up by the same hysterical anti-immigration folks who fight Spanish translations of emergency instructions and stateside Cinco de Mayo celebrations -- is just plain irresponsible.

There's nothing inherently dangerous about salsa or guacamole. The real culprits are uncooked vegetables, which can pose a real hazard when unwashed or improperly stored. If tomatoes are contaminated, it makes no difference whether they're used in salsa or tabouli: The CDC might just as well have mounted a campaign against Caprese salad.

But the agency zeroes in on salsa and guacamole because that's what Americans are eating. While ketchup's still holding steady as the nation's leading condiment, eaters annually consume more than 180 million pounds of salsa, a figure that reflects changing demographics and mainstream tastes. It's hardly surprising that some of that salsa's been bad.

The CDC should have examined its data and issued the appropriate warnings about fresh produce and proper food handling. The odd conclusion that diners should look out for salsa makes no more than sense than advising restaurant goers to always eat with chopsticks because the majority of food-borne illnesses are ingested via a fork.

This isn't the first time food safety experts have implicated a broad class of ethnic foods. In the early 20th century, when 25 percent of Americans claimed German ancestry -- and anti-German sentiment was on the rise -- potato salad was a favorite villain. Just like salsa, potato salad suffered from its own popularity. Although it was no more dangerous than deviled eggs and cream pies, two other items that regularly disrupted summer church picnics and wedding parties, potato salad was served more frequently and more likely to be left out in the sun.

"We have a lot of trouble with salads," the New York City Health Department's food poisoning expert Sam Plotkin told a New York Times reporter in 1950.

With nearly 600 city residents felled by food poisoning that summer, Plotkin organized a course covering the "personal hygiene of food handlers, food spoilage and food contamination by rodents." The Times didn't report back on the class, but it sounds like a slightly more productive solution than an alarmist press release slamming regional food.

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