Salmonella infections can come not only from contaminated foods, but contact… (Christine Prue / Centers…)
Salmonella causes food poisoning in about a million Americans each year, and it shows no signs of going away. A new CDC report this week found that the number of salmonella-related illnesses has been virtually unchanged in the last 15 years. Apparently, we’re going to have to learn how to avoid it as best we can on our own -- and thoroughly cooking meat and eggs is just the beginning.
The bacterium, which is shaped like a rod, makes its home in the intestinal tract of humans and animals. Infection can occur when people eat or handle raw food contaminated with animal feces, thus contracting the diarrhea-inducing salmonellosis. Many foods that come in contact with animals can carry the bacteria; the USDA highlights meat, eggs, and milk as common sources.
In the past few years, the CDC has recorded outbreaks from cantaloupes, alfalfa sprouts, pistachios, and peanut butter.
Sometimes, though, handling animals will spread the bacteria. Since April 2009, at least 222 people in the U.S. have been infected by African dwarf frogs, commonly found in fish tanks or aquariums. Earlier this year, salmonella infections linked to chicks and ducklings were reported in 25 people.
Frozen rats, used as food for reptiles, infected 34 people last year.
It’s perhaps worth nothing that the information on this particular outbreak includes this advice: “Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water immediately after handling frozen rodents used as food for reptiles, or anything in the area where they are stored, thawed, prepared, and fed to reptiles."
Then there’s this: "Avoid using microwave ovens or kitchen utensils used for human food to thaw frozen rodents used for reptile feed. Any kitchen surfaces that come in contact with frozen rodents should be disinfected afterwards."
You wouldn’t think such advice would be necessary.
But we digress.
Also, since August, at least 73 people have been infected with a strain of salmonella from microbiology labs; one person has died.
For an organism commonly associated with food, salmonella seems surprisingly versatile.
Salmonella was discovered in the 1880s by scientist Theobald Smith, who thought the organism might be the scourge behind hog cholera (it wasn’t). Alas, his supervisor, veterinarian Daniel E. Salmon, got the credit, according to the CDC, and the name salmonella (not smithella or some such) is still making headlines today.
Though salmonella only caught the attention of scientists a little over a century ago, the organism has been around for much, much longer. As this L.A. Times article “The science of salmonella” begins:
“This is salmonella's world. We're just living in it.
"The bacterium appeared on the planet millions of years before humans, and scientists are certain it will outlast us, too. It's practically guaranteed that salmonella will keep finding its way into the food supply despite the best efforts of producers and regulators.”
So cook your food. Wash your hands, especially after handling dead rodents or, for that matter, chicks. And if you’re working in a laboratory with salmonella, leave all your pens, lab coats and whatnot there; don’t bring them home.
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