Want a Side of Salmonella with that Sandwich?

It seems like not a week goes by without a shocking headline about Salmonella contamination in our food supply. 279 people from 41 States Sickened by Turkey Products. 700 People Sick from Two Outbreaks Associated with Chicken. Ground Beef Leaves 1 Dead, 8 Hospitalized.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Salmonella causes about 1.35 million illnesses, 26,500 hospitalizations, and 420 deaths in the United States every year. The annual direct medical costs associated with Salmonella are estimated to be around $365 million. Food is the source for about 1 million of these illnesses, 19,000 hospitalizations, and 380 deaths. So, what is this dangerous illness, how is it spread, and what can we do to avoid it?

What is Salmonella?

The CDC describes Salmonella as a bacterial infection that generally affects the intestinal tract and occasionally the bloodstream. Symptoms of Salmonella poisoning include diarrhea, abdominal pain and fever. Salmonella can be deadly. Salmonella is spread by eating or drinking
contaminated food or water, or by contact with infected animals or people. According to the CDC, “An estimated 94% of salmonellosis is transmitted by food. Humans usually become infected by eating foods contaminated with feces from an infected animal. As a result, implicated foods are often of animal origin such as beef, poultry, milk, and eggs.”

How is Salmonella Spread?

Salmonella is frequently traced back to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

CAFOs are largescale industrialized agriculture facilities where large numbers of animals are kept and raised in confinement. In addition to exploiting billions of animals annually and causing the most prolonged and intense suffering to animals on the planet, CAFOs are the perfect breeding ground for the proliferation of Salmonella. According to the World Health Organization, CDC, leading scientists and health experts, the common and combined conditions in CAFOs – “overuse of antibiotics, crowded and unsanitary livestock conditions, unnatural feed diets, and a lack of diversification” – create the perfect environment for dangerous diseases like Salmonella to thrive.

There are also problems with the current food safety standards, which do not consistently protect public health. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is in charge of meat safety. According to FSIS Compliance Guidelines, certain strains of E.coli-contaminated ground beef are prohibited from being sold because these strains are considered “adulterants” as defined by the Federal Meat Inspection Act. In contrast, Salmonella is not on the prohibited list of “adulterants”, which allows food producers to sell raw meat they know is contaminated with Salmonella, as long as it’s going to be cooked according to the FSIS Compliance Guidelines. As a result, Salmonella-contaminated products are permitted into our food supply, shifting the burden to consumers to make sure their food is safe.

According to Sandra Eskin, director of Pew Charitable Trust’s Safe Food Project (as told to The Oregonian), “The real issue here is the Salmonella standards that the government sets. They’re wholly inadequate to protect public health.”

How to Avoid Salmonella Poisoning and Other Food-Borne Illnesses

According to a recent Pew Commission report, outbreaks bring into sharp focus the ineffectiveness of USDA’s approach to minimizing Salmonella contamination in food products. Specifically, the report states, “The recent outbreaks of salmonella infections linked to Foster Farms have uncovered serious weaknesses in FSIS salmonella policies and regulations. The agency should make significant improvements in controlling salmonella contamination to reduce the number of preventable illnesses caused by contaminated poultry.”

It then sets out a number of recommendations to strengthen the agency’s response to outbreaks caused by these bacteria. One such recommendation includes closing facilities that are failing to produce safe food until their products stop sending people to the hospital.

Given the enormity of this task and the fact that there is still so much work to do to improve food safety, consumers can reduce the risks of Salmonella poisoning and other foodborne illnesses by avoiding some of the most frequent sources of Salmonella poisoning – poultry, eggs, meat and dairy products.


By Joyce Tischler, Professor of Practice, Animal Law, Center for Animal Law Studies at Lewis & Clark Law School

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