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Seriously Though, Why Are All These Salmonella Outbreaks Happening?

Lately, the news seems to be clogged up with stinky situations: salmonella outbreaks. But how and why do these outbreaks occur, and who is to blame for our intestinal disasters, especially with the Food Safety Modernization Act in play?
Photo by Raul Perez Foto via Flickr

Remember the last time you had "food poisoning"? You felt like death, chocked it up to some sketchy room temperature item that you consumed, took a couple days off work, pounded some Gatorade, and moved on with your life. You probably didn't see a doctor or report it to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

It could have easily been salmonella poisoning, one of the most common and deadliest of all foodborne illnesses in America. From chia seeds to chicken, tomatoes to Taco Bell, the disgusting bacteria that blows out our intestinal tracts can find their way into nearly any food group, from vegetables to processed food-like substances. When something as innocent-seeming as peanut butter can get you seriously sick (and the responsible parties decide to plead innocence-by-ADHD…yes, really), it's fair game to be completely skeptical about the safety of what's on our plates.

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Even though it's at the top of the "kinds of sick you never ever want to be," salmonella is harder to diagnose than you'd think. And yes, there is an atlas for it.

The confusion about this microscopic stuff is somewhat warranted, not least of all because the word itself is used to describe both the naturally-occurring bacteria and the disease it gives humans. Salmonella bacteria is a rod-shaped bacterium that belongs to the same bacterial family as E. coli — a.k.a. entobacteriaceae, commonly called "enteric" bacteria, in case you want to beef up your knowledge of bacterial family trees. salmonella disease, also known as salmonellosis, usually manifests itself as a horrendously awful stomach flu. It incubates anywhere from a few hours to a few days, and will knock you out for four to seven. Symptoms range from nausea and vomiting to cramps, fever, chills, and blood in your poop. It's awful, but often times goes undetected because of its close resemblance to other equally ghastly, not foodborne illnesses like the common flu or gastroenteritis.

Unfortunately, salmonella is naturally occurring. As in, it just lives in nature, undetected, hanging out with the birds and the bees—literally. For many years, the common assumption was that it formed in the intestines of invertebrates: animals like turtles, snakes, salamanders, and the mascot of salmonella: chicken. However, more recent science has determined it manifests in all sorts of places. As Dr. Don Zink, the senior science advisor to the Food and Drug Administration's Food Safety division, told me: "It's a very common environmental organism. We've found it in rivers, ponds, streams, even soil. We used to think it came primarily from poultry and beef — that's what they taught us in grad school. We now appreciate that it comes into the food supply by lots of different routes."

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One of the most common sources of salmonella is surface water, which can then internally get the bacteria into the flesh and bones of produce. That ended up being the case during the tomato outbreak in 2005, where almost 500 cases were documented across 21 states. Salmonella is also present in water used to spray fungicides and herbicides on plants, though there's been no scientific connection made between the use of pesticides and produce's susceptibility to disease, at least according to the FDA.

Though I'd like to suggest that there's a foolproof way to avoid salmonella, there isn't. Because it's in the environment, no product is more or less immune. Health food store items like sprouts, cantaloupe, and tomatoes are at as much risk as mass-produced chain restaurant food. Gwyneth Paltrow will have a health crisis if she reads that last sentence.

"No one type of product is particularly vulnerable, and I don't want to create an impression that the produce is more vulnerable, because it's not," says Dr. Zink. "We have hundreds of billions of servings of fresh produce in the United States every year, and most people don't get sick."

However, there are some common-sense things us consumers can do on our end to avoid having explosive diarrhea, according to the FDA: washing all food with warm water and soap, NOT washing chicken (sorry, Julia Child, but all that does is spread salmonella all over your kitchen), and prepping the less-likely-to-contaminate-you stuff (dry goods, fruits, and veggies) before higher-risk items like eggs, chicken, and beef.

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At this point, you may be asking yourself: What about the people who sell us this stuff? Aren't they responsible? Yes, they are, and more so thanks to a little ditty called the Food Safety Modernization Act, the first piece of legislation ever specifically designed to protect our food supply from germs and terrorism alike. Basically, the FDA is now requiring that all food producers take into account the fact that what they're making and selling could be infected in some way. Part of FSMA requires that companies have mandatory prevention strategies — things like scientific testing of produce, general monitoring of production, and a firm plan of action should an infectious bacteria be discovered. They've never had to do that before, which is deeply comforting (not).

For those of us who try to keep up on food safety news, it seems like there's a new outbreak every damn day. But contrary to what that would suggest, salmonella is not multiplying and having little salmonella babies…not yet, anyway. Morenews of foodborne illnesses actually indicates that the media is paying close attention to food safety and the FDA is doing a better job monitoring our food supply. The spike in outbreaks means officials are catching and tracking more illnesses, allowing them to better asses how to prevent them.

"We're getting better and better at identifying causes of outbreaks," says Dr. Zink. "It's a constantly moving yardstick."

Produce is an especially tough thing to trace, because it's consumed fresh and quickly. "By the time we get to the farm, the tomatoes are already gone," says Dr. Eric Brown, a microbiologist on the FDA's "Team Tomato" (yes, there really is such a thing). He and his colleagues collected over 1,800 samples during the 2005 tomato outbreak. That research helped them identify a bacteria called Paenibacillus, which is harmless to humans, plants and animals, but is deadly to salmonella. Nature is so Machiavellian.

Team Tomato is currently working with the EPA and farmers to figure out how to get this out into the fields, and looking to other methods that (good) natural bacterias can be used to fight it out against bad, vomit-inducing ones. At least someone is working on it.