The Elvis of E. coli

Carl Winter may be the hippest thing to happen to food safety. Although some critics might think this mild-mannered toxicologist is "Livin' La Vida Loca" by writing lyrics like "Beware La Vaca Loca" to Ricky Martin tunes, Winter is nonetheless a growing music sensation. And not just among the food-safety crowd: Next month, the self-styled "Sinatra of Salmonella" will be playing at the Nugget outside Reno, Nevada.

Perhaps the only musician whose songs have been "officially sanctioned as a scientific lecture" by the Institute of Food Technologists, Winter hasn't yet given up his day job--as director of the FoodSafe program at the University of California, Davis. But he sees his music as a way to put food safety in the spotlight. "This may be an oddball way of doing it," he confesses, "but it gets the message across."

Winter paid his dues in college, playing in "bad garage bands where sometimes there were more people in the band than in the audience." Forced to give up his musical career after graduate school and family life got in the way, the 41-year-old Winter returned to the music scene 2 years ago--with a vengeance.

His first CD, 1998's Stayin' Alive, featured 10 tracks. Demand for his second CD, Sanitized for Your Consumption, which includes "You Better Wash Your Hands" (to the tune of the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand"), has already surpassed the 500 mark. A gold or platinum album may not be in the making, but the music, distributed for free, can be heard everywhere from elementary schools to food-handler training courses. Winter has also heard through the grapevine that his "USDA" cover of the Village People's song "YMCA" is played at U.S. Department of Agriculture retirement parties.

Many of Winter's songs are available on the Internet from the FoodSafe program Web site. Despite the seeds of a following--he played to a sellout crowd at Baltimore's Hard Rock Café last March--Winter suspects he has enjoyed about 13 minutes of his 15 minutes of fame. "It's sort of taken over my life," he says. "Now I have to regain my reputation as a credible scientist."