Salmonella and sandwiches

June 16, 1989

While contemplating making a cheese sandwich the other day, I got a phone call that may have saved my life.
As usual in such life-saving cases, the call was from my mom.

"Don't eat any cheese," she warned me, "There's been a bad outbreak of salmonella from some contaminated cheese from either Minnesota or Wisconsin. They don't know what brands are causing it yet, but if you cook the cheese thoroughly it should be safe. Like if you bake it in the oven to make macaroni and cheese. Just melting the cheese isn't enough."

Rather than take my chances playing "Lunchtime with Louis Pasteur." I made a peanut butter sandwich instead. Better safe than poisoned, I always say.

I let the just-bought bag of Sargento shredded cheese fester in the fridge for a few days while I waited for more information. It was a sixteen-ounce economy size zipper-sealed bag, just the sort of innovation you'd expect from the fine people of Wisconsin. Lethal or not, a few days wouldn't hurt the Sargento.

In the meantime, I didn't see them taking any cheese off the grocery-store shelves. Deadly cheese? Big deal. Nobody bats an eye. Chilean grapes and Tylenol get pulled out of the SuperValu faster than you can say "isolated occurrence," but cheese -- in this part of the country more precious than air -- could be dripping with anthrax spores for all we care.

I was angry. I needed cheese. But more than that, I needed answers. So I called the good people over at KARE-TV. After all, they know what matters -- cheese.

I talked to a receptionist there, and she told me more or less what my mom already knew. Nobody knew which brands were safe and which ones were dangerous, so no brands had yet been pulled off the shelves (now there's thinking for you). But processed cheese might be the culprit, so stay away from it. Other than that, cook your cheese thoroughly. Don't just make grilled cheese sandwiches. The cheese won't get hot enough inside the bread. have a nice day.

I wasn't quite sure if cheese could be considered "processed" just because all the shreds are identical and refuse to stick to one another. I mean, it wasn't in individually wrapped Dentu-grip slices, but it sure didn't look natural . Then again, milk doesn't normally come out of the cow orange and solid either, so I guess it's all relative in Dairyland.

Meanwhile, Illinois was having its own cheese dilemma. Kraft's "Ready to Roll" contest took a turn for the worse when more than one-hundred people had the winning game pieces for a "one and only" grand prize, a $17,000 Dodge Caravan. Kraft blamed it all on a printing error, and declared the contest null and void.

Kraft spokesperson Kathy Knuth claims the company cannot be held liable for the mistake. Her defense: "It is no obviously unintentional."

Why didn't Exxon try that one?

Some of the winners filed a class-action suit against Kraft. A private attorney contacted by one winner said the company "may not be able to say, `Oops,' and forget about it."

In the meantime, the Kraft General Foods Group of the Phillip Morris Cos. ordered packages of Kraft singles off the shelves faster than you could say "black plague." Kraft knows what matters.

Since none of the winners had dies from Salmonella, I figured Kraft Singles were a safe, if not tasty, cheese option. But I still had a pound of shredded Sargento cheddar to deal with.

I broke the safety seal and poured half the bag into a saucepan. I turned the burner on and let the salmonella have it. Soon the mysterious protective shred coating melted away, and the cheese actually stuck together. Before long, the cheddar had congealed into a velvety blob. Once the cheese was bubbling, I figured the bacteria had had enough. Sterilization complete.

I poured the churning mess on some toast, squished the slices together, and had a safe, salmonella-free cheese sandwich. And it was good.

© 1989 Randel Shard. First published in The Minnesota Daily on June 16, 1989