"This is our pullet room and these are my baby chicks." Poutry Science Professor Dr Paul Patterson won't show you his four-week-old flock, unless you wear safety gear to protect them from contamination.
"For whatever reason," he says, "we've got more salmonella enteridis than at any other time in our history."
But not in these chicks, at Penn State. The university bought them from breeders certified SE negative.
A lot of effort goes into keeping these birds salmonella-free "Chick rearing is a really important time because this is when the birds get a lot of their vaccinations, just like kids get a lot of vaccinations," Dr. Patterson adds.
They also get frequent health checks and receive careful monitoring. "This is a very specific building. The building is engineered, the cages are engineered, so this isn't the red barn behind the house," Patterson explains.
Twenty-plus years of research by Penn State, the University of Pennsylvania and the State Agriculture Department went into creating the Pennsylvania Egg Quality Assurance Program. PEQAP certifies breeders and producers and has essentially been adopted by the Food and Drug Administration. The program aims to keep salmonella out at critical control points.
According to Dr. Patterson, "these birds aren't exposed to their own feces and that's a real plus in terms of microbial control."
Carefully tailored cleaning and disinfection methods have also reduced the chance of contamination, particularly in Pennsylvania eggs, even Dr Patterson says the days of eating a runny yolk from a fried or poached egg are gone.
In his words, "that might have been an earlier point in time, where we could recommend or allow people to eat those eggs. Today I would use pasteurized product or thoroughly cook the eggs."
But we don't cook cantalope, so how can we protect ourselves from listeria, the bacteria that killed 30 people this year. Food Science Professor Dr. Luke LaBorde illustrates the problem with a cantelope and a knife, explaining "when we cut it what we're doing is we're transferring the bacteria, if there is any bacteria, on here onto the flesh." And he says, this fruit is low in acid, making it a perfect place to grow bacteria.
Green onions, also linked to food poisoning, have plenty of layers to hide germs. "They're going to be in contact with the soil, if an animal came down and left something it's going to be a problem," LaBorde says.
He advises carefully washing all fruits and vegetables, but admits, "if it already has a pathogen on it, any washing's not going to eliminate it."
Dr LaBorde says the key is keeping pathogens from produce by using good agricultural practices. "If growers are made aware of potential hazards they can avoid problems," he says.
Last year, the Penn State Extension Cooperative trained more than 200 farm operations in preventing contamination.
And Dr LaBorde says it's important to keep things in perspective. "On a population level, the benefits of eating a lot of fresh produce far outweigh these very rare instances in which people get sick from produce."
You can actually see some of the deadliest germs on a visit to Dr Cathy Cutter's lab: listeria, e coli, salmonella. Dr Cutter's an expert on meat microbiology .
"I think we're probably going to see some more outbreaks in probably the next couple of years," she says. " I think the question comes down to how we can control it."
Recently, she planted toxins in ground beef and tested high pressure processing with water to kill the germs.
She says it significantly reduced bacteria in the meat and it has potential.
Dr Cutter says another important goal is more rapid detection of small amounts of toxins, and she's involved in that effort to. "Here at Penn State, we've identified a molecular method for detecting pathogenic e coli and we are now validating this test in beef processing plants, " she explains.
For now, her best advice echoes that of Dr Patterson: cook meat and eggs thoroughly, and you'll be safe.