We all know that the effects of salmonella poisoning are not pleasant: infected persons usually suffer from diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps that begin 12 to 72 hours after exposure and symptoms will last anywhere from four to seven days. In the case of vulnerable people, such as children or the elderly, the symptoms can be far more serious and can even lead to death.
Salmonella has certainly been a hot topic in the news lately in the United States and around the world, but how well do you understand where it comes from, how the food industry combats this threat, and how you can protect yourself?
The Origins of Salmonella
Dr. Daniel E. Salmon, an American veterinary scientist, is credited with discovering the first strain of salmonella in 1885 (in fact, it was his research assistant, Theobald Smith). Simply put, salmonella is a bacterium that causes intestinal infection. So far humans have discovered over two thousand strands of these dangerous, and sometimes deadly, bacteria. Salmonella is found commonly in meats such as chicken, pork and beef. It is most frequently found in poultry and can also be present in egg products. But unfortunately, cross-contamination can result in salmonella appearing on all kinds of foods; notable incidents in recent years include cucumbers, alfalfa sprouts, mangoes, and even peanut butter.
Salmonella has been a driving force in the regulation of the food industry. The Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) program implemented in the mid-1990s identified the points in the processing plant where poultry is at the highest risk of becoming contaminated. With this knowledge, processes could be altered to reduce the likelihood of salmonella contamination. According to a 2012 study affiliated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food Safety Inspection Service, the result was an estimated 190,000 fewer people who were infected with salmonella between 1996 and 2000.
Salmonella in the Present Day
Salmonella is a challenge that the food industry continues to grapple with. Just this month, Australian health authorities investigated an outbreak of food poisoning that resulted in one death and over two hundred sick. Closer to home, furloughed workers were called back to work in October following a particularly challenging outbreak. One concern that has been repeatedly voiced is that unlike E.coli, salmonella outbreaks do not force an automatic recall because it is assumed that the salmonella will be killed if it is properly cooked.
In 2009, over 40,000 cases of salmonella were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), though the number of actual cases is estimated to be much higher than those reported. If this sounds like an incredible number, know that it represents a decrease of approximately 15% from the previous year. The CDC has estimated that there are 1.4 million cases of salmonella in the U.S. every year, resulting in 400 deaths.
The Moral of the Story
There are some excellent standards that have been put in place since the first salmonella outbreak was reported, and the food industry continues to innovate in this area. But as a consumer, below you’ll find three very important tips to remember to protect yourself and your family.
• Cook meat thoroughly so that the internal temperature of the thickest part of the meat reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit, killing any salmonella that may be present.
• Be wary of cross-contamination. Wash hands, kitchen surfaces, and utensils in hot soapy water immediately after they come into contact with rare meat.
• When dining outside the home at a restaurant or a friend’s, never hesitate to send your food back if you suspect it has been undercooked.
For more information, the CDC has many helpful resources for those concerned about salmonella.