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Food safety specialists say they’re not surprised by how quickly a salmonella outbreak has spread across 37 U.S. states.
The outbreak linked to onions imported from Chihuahua, Mexico has led to more than 600 illnesses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Experts in Canada say although an outbreak caused by onions may be shocking to some, salmonella can affect many kinds of foods.
“The thing with salmonella is that it is a very robust pathogen, it can survive in the soil, it survives in water for extended periods of time,” says Keith Warriner, a professor in the Department of Food Science at the University of Guelph. “Once it gets into the environment it literally can find its way to a wide variety of foods.”
Onions are grown in open fields and there is no way to prevent all wild animals from accessing the crops and water that may be used for irrigation. Dr. Claudia Narvaez, an associate professor in the Department of Food and Human Nutritional Sciences at the University of Manitoba, says farmers will often take all the precautions to prevent contamination, but it’s possible some bacteria might pass through the system.
“If [farmers are] taking water from rivers or lakes and other animals are accessing the river then you know the water can get contaminated with animal feces that can remain in the water,” explains Narvaez.
Most common foods linked to salmonella infection
Raw and undercooked poultry, including chicken and turkey, is at high risk of salmonella infection. Experts note that breaded chicken products, like chicken nuggets, are also commonly linked to salmonella contamination because people assume they are already cooked when buying them and don’t prepare the nuggets properly.
Eggs are very sensitive to salmonella, and can make you sick if you eat them raw or undercooked.
“Typically the carriage in eggs is .001 per cent, but the problem is we eat eggs raw essentially, sunny side up and things like that. That’s the risk factor,” says Warriner.
Fruits and veggies
Fruits and vegetables, like leafy greens, cucumbers, tomatoes and onions, have been known to cause food poisoning when consumed raw.
“You can cook onions, but the problem is that often you use them for salads or guacamole and you don’t cook it so you are not killing [the bacteria],” notes Narvaez.
Experts say the main cause of contamination with produce happens through water sources used for irrigation.
Different kinds of raw sprouts, including alfalfa and mung bean, have been linked to salmonella poisoning. Sprouts require water and warm conditions for the seeds to germinate, which generates a really good environment for bacteria to grow.
Peanut butter is another food product that can be infected with salmonella before it even makes it to the processing plant. Peanuts are grown underground and can become contaminated through the manure that’s often used as fertilizer.
“Salmonella is really strong and persistent in a dry state,” explains Warriner.
Fish and shellfish can also become infected with salmonella, especially if they are being imported from places with a warmer climate. Properly cooking raw seafood is the best way to prevent getting food poisoning.
It's not you that can be harmed by salmonella. Experts say pet owners also need to be careful when buying pet food. Dry pet food like kibble is often heated at a high temperature that will kill off bacteria. Even so, Warriner says there have been cases where salmonella has been found in the flavourings that get mixed into the food after it’s been cooked.
How do I prevent salmonella infection?
Properly cook raw meat: When you’re cooking chicken or any kind of meat, make sure you cook it to the required internal temperature. A meat thermometer is a handy tool to ensure your meat is cooked and safe to eat.
Sanitation: Make sure you don’t cross-contaminate. Wash your cutting boards, cooking utensils and hands after handling raw meat products. It’s also not recommended to wash meat before cooking it.
Store food at the proper temperature: When you’re going shopping during the hot summer months, keep a cooler in your car to avoid having meat go bad.
Keep an eye on recalls: If you see a recall, check your pantry or fridge to make sure you don’t consume the product.
Symptoms of salmonella include diarrhea, vomiting and headaches.
If you have an item at home that’s been recalled you’re advised to throw it out or return it to the store where you bought it.