We've been hearing a lot about the gram negative bacteria Salmonella this summer, a strain of which to date has sickened over 1,000 people across 42 states. First we thought it was contaminating tomatoes, and the industry took a multi-million dollar hit. Lately the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shifted its focus to cilantro, jalapenos, serrano and other peppers used in salsa. I think there are several lessons we can learn from this mystery_

  • Though Salmonella doesn't sicken produce, it does sicken humans. Unfortunately, it is developing an ability in some species to deeply infect and spread among produce. The current strain, Salmonella Saint Paul, although it is not more virulent than other common strains - causing nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and cramping, it is more easily spread.
  • There is an inadequate tracing or regulating of produce entering the U.S. The USDA regulates farming, and the FDA regulates food, but too often food safety falls in the gap between these two agencies.
  • Salmonella and other bacteria that are prevalent in cattle and chickens, can easily be spread by irrigation or by food handlers to our produce. We can partially protect ourselves from salmonella in our meats by cooking them thoroughly, but we eat many of our fruits and vegetables raw. This raises the stakes for more effectively tracking our produce.
  • Washing produce is not effective at completely removing pathogenic bacteria like salmonella. Chemicals which are useful in the food handling process such as chlorine dioxide (kills salmonella more than 95 percent of the time) are not commonly used. Genetic splicing techniques and irradiation are other ways to make produce more resistant to bacteria.

Despite a continuing concern in the media over the salmonella outbreak, it is also important to keep in mind this summer that your chances of getting sick from eating salsa or peppers remains extremely low. Unfortunately, mystery and lack of answers from our federal agencies breed fear and cause us all to personalize the risk. It is hard to eat a delicious fruit or vegetables right after seeing it practically criminalized in the news without thinking you could be infected next. Many of my patients have told me their concern that the last case of diarrhea or nausea they got was really the terrorist Salmonella Saint Paul in disguise.

Statistically, chances are slim of getting salmonella poisoning. Our food remains largely safe. 76 million Americans get sick from food every year, but this number is much better than any other time in history. We should be able to raise the need to better regulate the growing and handling and importing of our food while at the same time continuing to enjoy eating it.

Marc Siegel MD is an internist and associate professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine. He is a Fox News Medical Contributor and writes a health column for LA Times, where he examines TV and movies for medical accuracy. Dr. Siegel is the author of False Alarm: the Truth About the Epidemic of Fear (Wiley 2005) and Bird Flu: Everything You Need to Know About the Next Pandemic (Wiley 2006). Read more at www.doctorsiegel.com