Food safety expert: Athens outbreak underscores importance of safeguarding against Salmonella

AUBURN UNIVERSITY – An Alabama Cooperative Extension System food safety specialist says that the recent salmonella outbreak that resulted in dozens of people reporting to the Athens-Limestone Hospital, in Athens, Ala., last weekend complaining of diarrhea, vomiting, cramps and fever is not only a reminder of the insidious nature of the potentially deadly pathogen, but also why people should take proactive steps to protect themselves from exposure.

Food safety specialist Jean Weese, an Auburn University professor of poultry science who heads Alabama Extension’s food safety team, said salmonella is insidious in terms of how readily it can infect food and ultimately people.

One of the common sources of foodborne illness in the United States, salmonella is the name of a group of bacteria found in the intestines of animals. However, when the excreta of the animals get in the soil, bacteria can be carried to almost any food, Weese said.

“We have seen salmonella outbreaks related to all types of foods and animals,” Weese said. “We commonly think of chickens and eggs as the source of salmonella food contamination, but the truth is that we’ve seen outbreaks in everything from peanut butter to pet shop turtles. Water can also be contaminated with salmonella.”

She said there are several effective ways to reduce the risk of exposure to the bacteria, starting with adequate heating. Salmonella is killed by heat treatments such as cooking and pasteurization and that is the reason why undercooked chicken, eggs and ground meat should be avoided.

Cross-contamination, typically during food preparation, is a major source of salmonella contamination and may prove to be the cause of the recent outbreak in Athens, according to Weese.

Reese said washing a raw chicken in the sink is not a good idea, and may result in both a contaminated chicken and sink. She said packaged chicken at the grocery store has been washed many times before it arrives at the store and recommends taking fresh chicken out of the package and cooking it without washing it.

She said any wash basin or surface that has been exposed to raw chicken should be sanitized before any other food comes into contact with it. This can be done with a sanitizing cloth or by using a solution made by mixing two tablespoons of chlorine bleach with a gallon of water. Because the solution loses its strength over time, a new solution should be mixed at least weekly or even more frequently, especially if it is not kept in a capped container.

Symptoms typically last four to seven days and most people recover without treatment. However, the bacteria can cause serious illness among older adults, infants and people with chronic diseases, according to Weese.

“People with compromised immune systems, such as diabetic, cancer or AIDS patients, should be especially mindful of these safety practices and also of the foods they consume,” Weese said. “If you’re at a restaurant and employees don’t appear to be handling or serving the food correctly, you shouldn’t eat there. While it may sound simple and direct, this advice may save your life.”

There are many different types of salmonella, according to Weese. The most common types in the United States are Salmonella typhimurium and Salmonella enteritidis. But many other serotypes cause illness, including Salmonella typhi, the organism that causes typhoid fever.

(Contributed by Jim Langcuster.)

Contact: Jim Langcuster, Alabama Cooperative Extension System, (334) 844-5686 (langcjc@auburn.edu),
Jean Weese, Alabama Cooperative Extension System, (334) 844-3269 (weesesj@aces.edu),
Charles Martin, Office of Communications and Marketing, (334) 844-9999 (marticd@auburn.edu)