The recent salmonella outbreak, which has caused the meat processing company Cargill to recall 36 million pounds of ground turkey has a lot of people concerned, and understandably so. According to the latest available data, this particular strain has caused at least 76 illnesses across multiple states and one confirmed death.
While outbreaks of this magnitude are usually rare in the United States, this should serve as a reminder that food-borne illnesses are more common than we think, and we should always pay attention to the way our meals are handled and prepared.
I’ve been getting a lot of e-mails about the recall, so I decided to answer some of your questions.
Q: What is salmonella?
A: Salmonella refers to a group of bacteria that can cause salmonellosis in humans. There are more than 2,000 varieties of the bacterium, about a dozen of which are responsible for making us sick.
Most often, salmonella infections cause gastroenteritis, or severe diarrhea. But in more severe cases, salmonella bacterium can also cause typhoid fever — a potentially deadly disease that is seen more in developing countries.
There is documented evidence of salmonella bacteria causing illness in humans up to 100 years ago. Today, it is the most common form of bacterial food poisoning infecting millions of Americans each year, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — with millions more cases going unreported.
Q: How do people catch salmonella?
A: Salmonella bacteria live in the intestinal tracts of humans, birds and other animals. Most people become infected with salmonellosis by eating foods that are contaminated by feces, raw or undercooked meat, poultry or eggs. After they are ingested, the microscopic organisms begin to multiply in the digestive tract of the unsuspecting host within about 12 to 72 hours causing diarrhea.
Q: Who is at risk for catching salmonella?
A: While stomach acid acts as a natural defense against the bacteria, some people are at higher risk for developing a bacterial salmonella infection:
--People with stomach or bowel disorders;
--People taking antibiotics or antacids;
--People who own reptiles or birds;
--People with compromised immune systems;
--Young children and the elderly;
--People who travel internationally and to developing countries;
--People living in large groups.
Q: How do I know if I’m infected?
A: Salmonella can be diagnosed with a simple stool sample test. Sometimes it may go undiagnosed because the patient may have expelled all traceable amounts of the bacteria in the stool by the time they make it to the doctor for testing. If your doctor suspects a salmonella infection has entered your bloodstream, he or she may take a blood test.
The incubation period for the infection can be anywhere between 12 and 72 hours, and symptoms can include:
--Blood in the stool.
Salmonella infections usually clear up on their own within about a week of the onset of symptoms, with lots of rest and a healthy amount of fluids to avoid dehydration and other secondary complications. Over-the-counter antidiarrheal medications can help calm the stomach, but doctors may prescribe antibiotics to kill bacteria in the bloodstream.
Q: How can I protect myself from this salmonella outbreak?
A: To protect yourself from this particular outbreak, and any future outbreaks, you should always prepare meat and eggs at the appropriate temperatures. Turkey, specifically, should be cooked at 165 degrees in order to kill the bacteria.
Experts also advise cleaning cutting boards and other cooking utensils thoroughly, as well as preparing vegetables on a separate cutting board from meats.
Q: Which foods are currently involved in the recall?
A: Cargill is currently recalling fresh and frozen ground turkey products produced at the company's Springdale, Ark., plant from Feb. 20 through Aug. 2. All of the packages recalled include the code "Est. P-963" on the label. The packages were labeled with many different brands, including Cargill's Honeysuckle White, according to the Associated Press.