You’ve probably read about the current Salmonella outbreak. It’s a fine example of what can happen when food is produced and distributed on an industrial scale—even one small contamination event can spread widely in the food supply, and there isn’t much of a system in place to follow the trail of contaminants. Others have covered the public health implications of this outbreak, so I’d like to examine some other facts that make this outbreak disturbing.
Salmonella likes non-human animals
Some species of Salmonella cause typhoid fever. Typhoid fever, a nasty epidemic disease of humans, is easily spread, but easily controlled. Humans are the only significant reservoir for the species of Salmonella that cause typhoid fever, so once you control humans and their water and waste, you can control and prevent outbreaks. The species that cause gastroenteritis (or “stomach flu”) are not so picky about hosts. They can infect many different animals, so even if you can control humans and their waste, you still haven’t controlled a large reservoir of potential trouble. Eggs are commonly contaminated with Salmonella, and outbreaks do to other foods are common. Meticulous food preparation can often prevent infection—thorough cooking of eggs, proper handling of meats. But the current outbreak is a bit more tricky.
Salmonella is easily killed with cooking
That’s great, if it contaminates food that you cook. In this case, peanut butter for industrial-scale use was contaminated. In all probability the peanuts for the product are from many different places, and many batches of butter may have been combined. But even more troubling is that peanut butter is not a product that people normally wash or cook. You simply open it and eat it. Lucky for Salmonella, unlucky for you. When meat or eggs are contaminated at the source of production, we still have a fighting chance through cooking. If it’s peanut butter, all is lost.
You don’t have to be sick to spread it
Not unique to this outbreak is the fact that a person can carry Salmonella and excrete it in their stool without becoming ill. Not only that, but compared to the dose necessary to become ill, it doesn’t take as many organisms ingested to turn someone into a carrier.
Natural defenses—some gaps
The treatment of gastro-esophageal reflux disease has been revolutionized by the introduction of H2-blockers such as famotidine (“Pepcid”) and PPIs such as omeprazole (“Prilosec”). These medications are very effective, and very safe. But (and you knew there had to be a “but”), these medicine work by raising gastric pH, which weakens one of our defenses against Salmonella. The bacterium doesn’t like dropping into a cauldron of acid, but it’s just fine at the relatively higher pH of a stomach treated with omeprazole. This stuff is over the counter, so millions of people take it, rendering them more susceptible to infection, should they be unlucky enough to encounter contaminated food.
Antibiotics—stop asking for them, please
Antibiotics can reduce the normal flora of the GI tract. Some studies have shown that the disruption of normal intestinal flora with antibiotics renders people more susceptible to infection.
What do I do now?
The usual precautions are always a good bet, among them:
- Wash fruits and veggies thoroughly
- Salmonella often contaminates the surface of meat (via intestinal contents/poo), so make sure any surface that touches the meat’s surface is thoroughly decontaminated. Also, ground meats are basically “all surface” so they must be cooked well.
- If the CDC or FDA or other agency recommends avoiding a particular food, take them seriously.
Many cases of food-borne illness can be prevented at the consumer level—the current outbreak makes that a bit harder. Eat carefully.