What is Salmonella?

Salmonella is in the news and I have received phone calls and emails from some of you asking questions. It was also suggested that I use this subject for my column.

There has been news about the issue of salmonella being in romaine lettuce and possibly eggs when not thoroughly cooked. Various bacteria and other microorganisms are widely present in nature and easily spread. New technologies help us detect these organisms more accurately than we once could which means that more illnesses are now attributed to be foodborne.

The nutrients that make eggs a high quality food for humans are also a good growth medium for bacteria. Eggs and other animal protein foods such as meat, poultry, fish, seafood, and milk products, as well as cooked vegetables provide a ready supply of both food and moisture for bacterial growth. This may occur unless the food is chilled, cooked, or otherwise preserved. Therefore, these foods are considered “potentially hazardous”. This designation is not cause for alarm however. It means that these foods are perishable and should be treated with care including refrigeration and adequate cooking.

So what is it that you need to know about salmonella to help prevent contamination? The first point is that salmonella bacteria continually cycle through the environment in the intestinal tracts of humans and animals. They are found in birds, reptiles, and even insects. These organisms can easily be passed from the intestinal tract to the hands and onto food. Because salmonella species are so widely distributed in nature and are easily spread, especially through improper food handling, salmonellosis (the illness caused by salmonella bacteria) is a common foodborne illness.

The second point is salmonellae are often found in raw or undercooked foods such as poultry, eggs, and meat. They can spread to other foods through cross contamination. Salmonella enteritidis has been linked to Grade A shell eggs. This is why you are told not to eat or drink food items with raw eggs in them. Another food that can be a source of contamination is unpasteurized milk. All foods can carry microorganisms or chemical agents that may cause illness when consumed. All foods have the potential to be hazardous. What is important for you to know and remember is that foodborne disease agents can originate in a food or they can be added to the food from other sources.

About 40,000 cases of salmonellosis are reported in the United States each year. Symptoms include stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea, chills, fever, and headache that normally occur 6 to 48 hours after eating the contaminated food and may last 3 to 5 days. Healthy older children and adults can usually process the bacteria. Infants and young children, the ill, and the elderly are often seriously affected.

Mary Ann Lienhart Cross provides this Food & Nutrition Column weekly for the Elkhart Truth. Contact her at 574-533-0554 or via email to: lienhart@purdue.com

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