Every year more than 1 million Americans experience food poisoning from meat tainted by salmonella. Another 73,000 have a run-in with E. coli O157:H7, a bacterium that causes debilitating diarrhea. But a strategic pinch of sodium chlorate— a compound closely related to table salt— might be all it takes to put an end to the misery.
Robin Anderson, a microbiologist at the U. S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Center in College Station, Texas, recognized that sodium chlorate has a wonderfully selective toxic effect. It is innocuous when ingested in moderate amounts by humans, animals, or even beneficial gut bacteria. But it is deadly to both Salmonella typhimurium and E. coli O157:H7, whose internal enzymes convert sodium chlorate into toxic sodium chlorite. As an experiment, Anderson and his colleagues infected 45 baby pigs with salmonella and then fed them a small amount of sodium chlorate. Sixteen hours later, the bacteria count in the piglets' intestines had dropped 150-fold. "I don't know if that brings the levels down to zero, but it puts them pretty close," says Anderson. He proposes giving cattle, pigs, and chickens a drink of sodium chlorate-laced water to disinfect their guts before sending them to the slaughter.