Salmonella is a family of rod-shaped Gram-negative bacteria that colonize the intestinal tracts of humans and animals. The bacteria commonly contaminate food and water via fecal matter, sickening about 1.2 million people and causing the deaths of 450 every year in the United States, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates.
Salmonella is universally present in the environment, but concentrations of 1,000 cells or more on food are the main cause of outbreaks in the U.S. Beef, pork, poultry, fish, shrimp, eggs, milk, and other dairy products are common hosts to high concentrations of Salmonella, but fruit, vegetable, herbs, and other produce are frequently contaminated.
People can also become sickened by Salmonella by handling livestock. In the summer of 2015, U.S. health authorities connected a massive 40-state Salmonella outbreak to the handling of “backyard flock” chickens and other poultry. At least 180 people sickened in that outbreak reported kissing and cuddling their chickens.
In September, a federal judge sentenced Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell to 28 years in prison for knowingly distributing Salmonella-contaminated peanut butter products to other manufacturers, generating a massive outbreak that killed at least nine people and sickened more than 700 others. Mr. Parnell’s prison sentence was the harshest ever given to a corporate executive in a food-poisoning case.
People begin showing symptoms of Salmonellosis in six to 72 hours after exposure. Symptoms of salmonella exposure include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain and cramps, fever, and headache. Most people will partially recover without treatment after a couple of days, but symptoms may linger in a milder form for a week or even months. Researchers have linked Salmonellosis to the development of arthritis in about two percent of patients in culture-proven cases.
Severe, life-threatening infections generally occur in children 5 years old and younger. Other people at high risk of developing severe complications are the elderly and anyone with a condition that weakens the immune system. Death may occur from dehydration and electrolyte imbalance – a result of prolonged diarrhea and vomiting – and from septicemia, which occurs when the bacteria escape the intestine, enter the blood stream, and infect the organs.
The best way to avoid a Salmonella infection is to avoid cross-contamination and cook food thoroughly. Salmonella is easily transferred in the kitchen from the source, such as raw meat, to cutting boards, knives, dish towels, and unwashed hands, which in turn are transferred to food. When handling livestock or pets such as turtles and lizards, wash hands thoroughly before eating or other hand-to-mouth contact.
Major Salmonella outbreaks in 2015 include:
- Salmonella Poona infections linked to Mexican-grown cucumbers;
- Multi-drug resistant Salmonella infections linked to pork;
- Salmonella Enteritidis infections linked to raw, frozen stuffed chicken breast entrees made by Aspen and Barber foods;
- Human Salmonella infections linked to kissing, cuddling live poultry;
- Salmonella infections linked to handling pet geckos;
- Salmonella infections linked to frozen raw tuna.