Every year, salmonella causes about 1.2 million illnesses in the United States, accounting for about $365 in direct medical costs. Salmonellosis, the official name, is a type of food poisoning caused by the Salmonella enterica bacterium. There are of course many kinds of this bacteria, and they are most common in beef, poultry, milk and eggs.
The chances of getting salmonella poisoning from eggs are actually much smaller than many of us have been led to believe, but last year’s salmonella outbreak in chickens forced people to think seriously about what they were eating.
So how does salmonella spread? The bacteria “can be present in foods as a result of cross-contamination with raw foods, or from contamination from humans, animals, birds or reptiles.” That means that any food processing plant that isn’t careful about cross-contamination is essentially at risk.
According to Foodsafety.gov, “it gets into food through the poop of animals, such as cows, birds, and mice. Because the natural home for Salmonella bacteria is in the gut of these animals, their poop becomes a carrier of the germ if it gets into food or water. For example, if water used to irrigate a field has animal poop in it, the water can contaminate the food growing in the field.”
If anything, salmonella poisoning from foods is often more indicative of an industrialized agricultural system that needs serious reform than it is about individual foods that can carry salmonella. In fact, antibiotic-resistant salmonella is nowadays considered normal on raw poultry; something that the consumer merely needs to deal with. We’re eating contaminated foods.
But chicken isn’t the only culprit. Here are six foods that in the last few years have been recalled for their own salmonella outbreaks.
1. Ground Beef
While beef is most commonly associated with e. coli, it’s certainly not immune to salmonella. Fears were raised during an outbreak in early 2013 that hospitalized many, causing a discussion about food safety practices in the meat industry. But food safety practices haven’t always come first. In fact, in 2001, the Bush administration proposed a plan that would have stopped salmonella testing in ground beef served in school cafeterias. Fortunately, the proposal was overturned. Nowadays, all beef that is tested for E. coli is also tested for salmonella, but if ground beef tests positive for salmonella, it can still enter the food chain. It’s only recalled if it’s linked to human illness.
Want to blame someone for salmonella in your chicken? If we look at the statistics from 2013, there’s certainly one chicken company that should get the slap on the wrist: Foster Farms. In 2013, they were the largest known source of salmonella, with outbreaks connected to 615 different reported salmonella infections. That outbreak caused the USDA to scramble in terms of its testing methods, and the Department of Agriculture is planning to expand rules so that salmonella is not only limited on whole chickens, but also chicken parts. But some say that doesn’t go far enough, challenging that the USDA should flat out ban some of the most dangerous strains of salmonella, like it has done with certain bacterial strains in beef.
3. Freeze-Dried Fruit
Think a bag of freeze-dried, naturally sweetened fruit slices is a good snack idea? Think again. Earlier this year, 59,780 cases of freeze-dried sliced fruit, produced exclusively for Costco, were recalled because of potential salmonella contamination. Packaged fruit can contain salmonella if the factory in which it was processed was contaminated or if the fruit in question came into contact with the bacteria before it was packaged. Ultimately, you have no way of knowing whether or not freeze-dried fruit contains salmonella; you have to trust that the factory producing it is following the food safety rules and regulations.
4. Organic Basil
In March 2014, a producer of organic basil sold at Trader Joe’s was forced to recall its product for fear of salmonella contamination. No illnesses were reported with the recall. Basil and salmonella aren’t connected too often – there was a case in England in 2008, and in dried basil in Canada in 2012 – but it does highlight the fact that you can’t avoid salmonella just by avoiding raw meats. The best option is to grow your own basil, or know your producer, but if you are nervous about the risk of salmonella, you can also wash your basil, just like other vegetables.
5. Peanut Butter
In 2012, a salmonella outbreak was tied back to peanut butter sold at Trader Joe’s, only a few years after around 700 people had fallen ill. The finger was pointed at the brand King Nut. So how does salmonella get into peanut butter? Animal feces is a likely culprit. For example, in one case, there was a leak in the ceiling of the factory producing peanut butter. The water could have been contaminated from bird feces before making its way into the processing plant. And once the salmonella is in your peanut butter, it’s going to stay there; studies have shown that salmonella can survive in peanut butter for several months.
6. Raw Cashew Cheese
Nope, even your vegan-friendly packaged products aren’t entirely safe. Earlier this year, 17 people were infected with salmonella because of a packaged cashew cheese. The product was recalled after the company realized that raw ingredients used in the product were potentially contaminated with the bacteria. This is a reminder that all processed food, no matter what it is, can be subject to salmonella if they aren’t properly processed, because once salmonella finds its way into a processing plant, it can be extremely hard to kill.
Photo Credit: MissMessie