Sneaky Salmonella: It’s Common, Costly, and Preventable
By Capt. Christopher R. Braden, MD, Director of the Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases, CDC
Each year, roughly 1 in 6 people in the United States gets sick from eating contaminated food. Each of those illnesses represents something that went wrong somewhere along the pathway from a farm to our table. Behind these illnesses are familiar culprits (like Salmonella) and causes (like poor food safety practices in farms, factories, restaurants, or homes).
Salmonella are bacteria that cause over one million illnesses each year. This “bug” causes more hospitalizations and deaths than any other type of germ found in food and $365 million in direct medical costs each year. At CDC, we’re concerned that Salmonella infections have not declined in 15 years. So, how does Salmonella sneak into foods, what foods do they get into, and what can be done?
How does Salmonella get into foods?
Simply put—it gets into food through the poop of animals, such as cows, birds, and mice. Because the natural home for Salmonella bacteria is in the gut of these animals, their poop becomes a carrier of the germ if it gets into food or water. For example, if water used to irrigate a field has animal poop in it, the water can contaminate the food growing in the field.
Contamination can also occur where food is being made. For instance, a tainted ingredient can get on equipment, floors, storage bins, or someone’s hands and then spread to other food. In fact, a cutting board or knife that has germs on it can contaminate other foods and lead to food poisoning.
What foods does Salmonella get into?
One reason why it’s tough to reduce Salmonella infections is because the germ makes its way into so many different types of foods. Salmonella can contaminate meats, poultry, eggs, fruits, vegetables, and even processed foods such as peanut butter.
What can be done?
You can’t smell or see Salmonella in or on food. That’s why it’s important to do everything that you can to be food safe at home:
- Follow the tried-and-true behaviors of CLEAN, SEPARATE, COOK, and CHILL. When it comes to Salmonella, this means:
- Wash your hands, utensils, cutting boards, and other surfaces before and after handling meat and poultry.
- Thoroughly wash fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Assume that raw chicken and other meat have Salmonella and don’t allow them to contaminate surfaces and other foods, such as produce.
- Don’t wash meat, poultry, and eggs! This can actually spread Salmonella to other foods.
- Cook meat, poultry, and eggs thoroughly to safe temperatures.
- Avoid unpasteurized dairy products (including soft cheeses) and juices.
- Make sure shellfish are cooked or treated for safe eating.
- Report suspected food poisoning to your local health department.
- Never prepare food for others if you have diarrhea or vomiting.
- Pay attention to food recall notices. Never serve or eat food that has been recalled.
You can also support policies that encourage good food safety practices among farmers, grocery stores, and places that make, sell, or serve food.
For more information, check out these resources:
- Food Poisoning: Salmonella
- CDC Vital Signs report: Making Food Safer to Eat