Image: JoNel Aleccia
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
msnbc.com
updated 8/1/2011 7:11:41 PM ET 2011-08-01T23:11:41

Contaminated ground turkey is being blamed for an outbreak of salmonella food poisoning that has killed one person and sickened at least 76 others in 26 states since March, government health officials said.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued a public health alert after the nation's foodborne illness detection system, PulseNet, confirmed the genetic fingerprint of salmonella detected in fresh or frozen ground turkey consumed across the nation.

Health officials have confirmed information reported from at least 58 people who became ill. Those sickened range in age from less than a year to age 88, with a median age of 23. At least 22 people have been hospitalized so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

No details were available immediately about the person who died.

Cultures of four ground turkey samples bought from retail locations between March 7 and June 27 yielded the particular outbreak strain of salmonella Heidelberg.

The salmonella strain appears to be resistant to many common antibiotics, which may complicate treatment for infections. Drug resistance can lead to increased risk of hospitalization or serious illness.

The number of ill people reported to be affected varies widely in several states, from 10 people each in Ohio and Michigan and nine in Texas to single infections reported in several states. Infections began on or after March 9 and have continued through Aug. 1, officials said. Illnesses that occurred after July 5 might not yet be logged because of the lag between becoming ill and when the illness is reported.

Consumers should make sure to cook fresh or frozen ground turkey thoroughly, and to an internal temperature of 165 Fahrenheit. Use of a food thermometer is the only way to ensure proper cooking temperature, health officials emphasized.

Most people infected with salmonella develop diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection. The illness usually lasts four to seven days. In some patients, however, the illness becomes so severe that hospitalization is required.

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