Salmonella Outbreak Sickens Hundreds

While officials search for the source, take steps to protect yourself.

January 9, 2009

Salmonella outbreak: Unless diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps are on your shopping list, clean all produce thoroughly.

UPDATE 1-15: Kellogg Company has announced that it is recalling four peanut butter-containing products: Austin and Keebler branded Toasted Peanut Butter Sandwich Crackers, Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich Crackers, Cheese and Peanut Butter Sandwich Crackers, and Peanut Butter-Chocolate Sandwich Crackers. According to the company's website, Kellogg has not received any complaints about illness relating to the crackers. But the move is a precautionary measure, since Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) is one of the suppliers of peanut paste for those products. PCA has recalled its peanut butter distributed under the Parnell's Pride and King Nut brand names (see below). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, common brands of peanut butter sold in grocery stores do not appear to be associated with the Salmonella outbreak.

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UPDATE 1-12: The distributor of King Nut brand peanut butter has issued a recall of the product, after salmonella was detected in one of its packages, according to the company's website. The peanut butter, also distributed under the Parnell's Pride brand name, is not sold to consumers but is used by hospitals, restaurants, schools, and other food-service venues.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and public health officials are scrambling to find the source or sources of a multistate salmonella outbreak that has left more than 385 people infected in 42 states.

THE DETAILS: At least 18% of 388 people infected with the bacterium Salmonella, serotype typhimurium, between Sept. 3 and Dec. 29, 2008, wound up hospitalized, the CDC announced Thursday, although they did not disclose where the victims live. Those affected ranged in age from just a few months old to 103 years old. The agency says it is working with public health official in many states, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service, and the federal Food and Drug Administration to try figure out the source of the contaminated product, likely a widely distributed food item. Public health officials will likely interview people sickened by the bacteria and nonaffected people to compare recently eaten foods. At the same time, suspected foods will likely be tested.

Most people sickened by Salmonella develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection; the cause is usually diagnosed by culturing a stool sample. The sickness usually lasts four to seven days, and most people recover without treatment, although more severe infections can occur. The young, elderly, and those with suppressed immune systems are more likely to develop severe illness and may need to be treated promptly with antibiotics.

WHAT IT MEANS: Until the CDC reveals more information—what foods are suspect—it’s best for all of us to be extracautious about food safety. Interviewing and testing for the source of a salmonella outbreak can take weeks and isn’t always successful.

In the meantime, use these tips to keep your food as safe as possible:

• Be cautious with peanut butter. The recalled brands are not sold in supermarkets but are used in restaurants, cafeterias, and other food-service settings. If eating out, ask what brand of peanut butter is served, or avoid it for the time being.

UPDATE: With Kellogg recalling some of its peanut butter-containing crackers, avoiding packaged food that's made with peanut butter seems a reasonable precaution. You can check the FDA's recall list to see if anything in your pantry might contain tainted peanut butter.

• Be nosy at the grocery store. Both animal-source food, such as meat and dairy, as well as produce, can harbor the Salmonella germ. Past outbreaks have been linked to jalapeño and serrano peppers, and in 2006 the same typhimurium strain was linked to tainted tomatoes. Check the expiration date on egg cartons; flip the lid and check each egg for cracks. Pass on bruised or damaged produce: Research shows that bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli are more likely to be associated with fresh produce if it shows signs of decay. Be wary of precut produce, too. Even if it’s on ice, the package could get warm enough on top to cause petri dish–like conditions under the plastic wrap. Plus, the excess packaging isn’t good for the environment, either. Make sure the produce is cold to the touch, or find whole produce that’s fresh and undamaged instead.

• Clean all produce. A 20-second plain-water rinse will get rid of some bacteria, but for better protection make your own natural cleaning concoction: Mix 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of distilled white vinegar, and 1 cup of cold tap water in a spray bottle, shake well, then apply to your produce. Rinse with tap water and serve.

• Be a safe-meat maverick. If the meat or poultry package doesn’t feel cold to the touch, don’t buy it, and consider shopping elsewhere. In the home fridge, place meat, poultry, and seafood on pans with lips to reduce the risk of spillage. Then wrap the pans and put them on the bottom shelf, so spillage won’t contaminate everything underneath.

• Give your cutting board a bath. Wash the board with detergent (preferably one without phosphates and synthetic fragrances) and hot water; then rinse and flood with a solution of 1 part full-strength white vinegar to 4 parts water and let it sit for 5 minutes. Rinse with clean water, pat with a clean towel, and air-dry. And never cut meat and produce on the same board between thorough washings.

• Don’t mimic the experts. Researchers at Texas Tech University discovered that Food Network hosts committed 460 food-handling fouls in 49 episodes, compared with 118 safe measures. The most common infractions? The hosts didn't wash citrus fruits, fresh herbs, or their hands. Find more safety tips or report suspected food-borne–related illnesses at the government’s food safety site.

• Forget the 5-second rule. We know we shouldn’t have to tell you this, but don’t eat off the floor. The transfer of bacteria from a contaminated surface to food is almost instantaneous—or, at the very least, quicker than your reflexes, according to Clemson University researchers who dropped bologna and bread on a floor speckled with Salmonella.

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