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The U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued a health alert, warning people about an outbreak of salmonella in 18 states. So far, more than 270 have fallen ill and the outbreak is now being traced to raw chicken from a poultry producer here in California. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: A few months back, a team of scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began monitoring a cluster of salmonella illnesses mostly on the West Coast. And when they found that many of the people who had gotten sick had eaten chicken produced by one poultry producer, Foster Farms, they called their counterparts at the USDA to help investigate.

DAVID GOLDMAN: From that point forward, we decided to do some intensive sampling in four different Foster Farms plants.

AUBREY: That's David Goldman of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. He says what his investigators found was that three of the plants were still producing chicken products that were contaminated with Salmonella Heidelberg, the strains making people sick. Now the CDC says since the outbreak is ongoing, it's possible that people are still being sickened by raw chicken, and the agency's Chris Braden says the bacteria is proving to be quite virulent.

CHRIS BRADEN: We are seeing a high rate of hospitalization in this outbreak at 42 percent.

AUBREY: Typically, only about 20 percent of people require hospitalization. Braden says the one complicating factor is that the salmonella strains involved in this outbreak are resistant to several antibiotics.

BRADEN: It is harder to treat these infections that have resistance to multiple antibiotics.

AUBREY: Sometimes the first course of treatment fails and doctors have to reach for stronger antibiotics. Foster Farms says it's working with government investigators to address the issue, but says its products are safe to consume if properly handled and fully cooked. As for advice to consumers, the USDA has issued a health alert, telling consumers how to determine if the chicken they're buying is coming from one of the facilities where Salmonella Heidelberg has been found. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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