Salmonella outbreak: onions and backyard poultry

Stephanie Smith, Food Safety

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Federal Drug Administration and state agencies are currently investigating a multistate outbreak of salmonella Newport. The outbreak has been linked to red, white, yellow and sweet yellow onions from Thomson International Inc.

As of Aug. 25, there have been 869 reported salmonella cases resulting in 116 hospitalizations across 47 states, with Idaho and Washington reporting 34 and 50 cases, respectively. The actual case count is likely to be much higher because of underreporting of foodborne illnesses.

In addition, many other food products were made with the recalled onions including cheese dips and spreads, salsas, salads and ready-to-eat meat and poultry products. Both the onions and other food products being recalled were sold under many different brands, and in many popular stores across the nation.

In addition to the outbreak involving onions, there are additional outbreaks of salmonella circulating the United States. The CDC is currently investigating 15 multistate outbreaks of salmonella which have been linked to contact with backyard poultry. These outbreaks have resulted in 938 cases, 151 hospitalizations, and one death across 48 states as of July 29. Idaho and Washington have reported 6 and 19 cases., respectively, though as stated above, the actual case count is likely much higher. Twenty-eight percent of these cases across the U.S. are in children younger than 5 years of age.

Unfortunately, salmonella infections in the United States are not rare and cause 1.35 million illnesses, 26,500 hospitalizations and 420 deaths every year. According to the CDC, most people infected with salmonella will develop diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps anywhere from six hours to six days after ingestion of the bacteria. The illness will usually last four to seven days, but some will not develop symptoms for several weeks or may experience symptoms for several weeks.

Although most people will recover without any treatment, salmonella can sometimes cause infection in urine, blood, bones, joints, spinal fluid or the brain. Severe infections often result in hospitalization and may result in death. As with most foodborne illnesses, children younger than 5, adults 65 and older and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to be affected by a severe form of the illness. Additionally, some people infected with salmonella may develop reactive arthritis, which often can last for years.

To further complicate matters, as many as 16 percent of salmonella strains are resistant to at least one essential antibiotic used to treat severe infection, and 2 percent are resistant to three or more essential antibiotics. Currently, the CDC has deemed drug-resistant nontyphoidal salmonella as a serious threat to public health. There have not been any indications that the strains contaminating onions or backyard poultry are drug resistant, but this information does highlight the fact that salmonella illnesses can not only be severe, but may also be difficult to treat.

Preventing the spread of Salmonella

On a more positive note, there are steps you can take to reduce your chance of becoming infected with salmonella. Regarding the recalled onions, be sure to check the list of recalled products frequently, and make sure that you do not have any of these items in your refrigerator or pantry. The list can be found at bit.ly/32TOpJ9. Discard any of the items on the recall list, or contact the store where the items were purchased for further instruction.

Salmonella can be destroyed by cooking food to the proper internal temperature as measured with a food thermometer: 165 degrees Fahrenheit for all poultry; 160 F for hamburger, pork, and egg dishes; 145 F for beef, veal, and lamb steaks and roasts; and 135 F for cooked vegetables. Always wash vegetables and fruit under running water to help remove bacteria on the surface. Always wash and sanitize any surfaces, including knives, countertops, and cutting boards between handling of different types of foods to prevent cross-contamination.

Regarding backyard poultry, be sure to always wash your hands with soap and water after touching backyard poultry, eggs, bedding, food or water. Always clean equipment or materials used to or care for poultry outside. Children younger than 5 years of age should not handle or touch chicks, ducklings, or other poultry, as they are at higher risk for infection.

Be sure to collect eggs often, and throw away any cracked eggs. Eggs can be cleaned using fine sandpaper, a brush or a cloth. Never wash warm, fresh eggs, because salmonella and other bacteria can be pulled into the egg by the water. Be sure to refrigerate eggs after collecting and cleaning.

More information on salmonella can be found on the CDC’s website at cdc.gov/salmonella.

Stephanie Smith is an assistant professor and statewide consumer food specialist for Washington State University. She can be reached at food.safety@wsu.edu.

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