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Maybe it was something you ate.

MAYBE IT WAS SOMETHING YOU ATE Conclusion: Salmonella shouldn't be confused with the common food poisoning Staphylococcus aureus, sometimes nicknamed "Roto-Rooter disease." These bacteria produce a toxin to which the body responds almost immediately by ordering a total evacuation. This provokes violent spasms throughout the digestive tract, frequently causing vomiting and diarrhea simultaneously. However, it's rarely serious, and the symptoms last only a few hours.

By contrast, salmonellosis symptoms, which includeheadache, rumblings in the bowels, diarrhea, and sometimes fever and vomiting, appear between 6 and 72 hours after the bacteria are ingested. That's why it's often tough to figure out what food did you in, unless you're one of a group of sufferers who all ate the same thing. Even then, salmonella plays tricks. The bacteria can't get around very well on their own, but at room temperature they can double their population every 25 minutes. These two factors can make a salmonella infection in food very localized: all the party-goers who eat from the northwest corner of the scalloped-potato pan might be fine, while those who serve themselves from the southeast quadrant become sick. This also explains how it is that two people can eat the same thing at a restaurant but only one gets sick.

The severity of salmonellosis is also directly related todosage: a small amount of the bacteria will make you a little bit sick, and a whole lot will make you very sick. What constitutes a whole lot can vary from serotype to serotype. Tt can take a million of some kinds, but the potent S. ealing can make you sick if only a single bacterium slides down your throat.

Salmonellae find boyd temperature very comfortable,and if you've eated food they like--say, a big turkey dinner and some eggnog, which neutralize stomach acids--they survive more easily and travel to the intestines, multiplying as they go. When a sufficient number of pathogenic bacteria reach the intestinal wall, the bowel's defense mechanism responds by manufacturing copious amounts of mucus, drawing water from the bloodstream, and pushing everything out of the intestines quickly. By repeating this process frequently as long as necessary, the body will excrete most of the bacteria. However, though the bacteria don't usually colonize in the body, about 3 percent of samonellosis sufferers become carriers, like the infamous Typhoid Mary, the direct cause of more than 50 cases of typhoid fever and three deaths while working as a cook in New York in the early 1900s. Salmonella is transmitted from person to person only about 10 percent of the time--usually when a carrier's feces, not washed from his hands, contaminate food during preparation. Most often, the illness comes from food contaminated by animal feces--meat, eggs, and dairy products, for the most part. The bacteria have also been cultivated from protein powders, peanut butter, chocolate, green beans, pepper-corns, ground beetles (once used to make red food coloring), and even powdered snake sold in health-food stores. Salmonella occurs in dairy products when raw milk is used or when it's contaminated after pasteurization.

My salmonellacame from eggs. My doctor and I think I got it from an egg-salad sandwich I bought in a New York deli. The eggs, not the mayonnaise in the salad, would have carried the bacteria. When people get sick from eating food with mayonnaise in it, they tend to blame the mayo, but they shouldn't. This misconception is left over from the days of homemade mayonnaise and unpasteurized eggs. Today mayonnaise processors use liquid pasteurized eggs. Best Foods, the maker of Hellmann's mayonnaise, says there has never been a case of food poisoning linked to modern commercial mayonnaise. "Not only do we use pasteurized eggs, but our mayonnaise has sufficient quantities of acid and salt to stop harmful bacteria right in its tracks," says Phil Wells, Best Foods' expert on microbes and mayo. "Mayonnaise is self-pasteurizing. In salads it retards rather than encourages bacterial growth." By and large, an egg becomes contaminated when a microbe from a dirty shell gets into it when it's cracked open.

In the United States, turkey, beef, and chicken are themost common sources of salmonella outbreaks from meat. (Samplings of chicken carcasses by the Food and Drug Administration also showed that half of them were infected with the diarrhea-inducing bacteria Compylobacter.) Though the U.S. Department of Agriculture says as many as 37 percent of chicken carcasses may contain salmonella bacteria (and that chicken is therefore a hazard in the kitchen if mishandled), cooked chicken is infrequently a source of salmonellosis, because chicken isn't eaten rare. Turkey isn't usually served rare either, but a turkey is more difficult to cook than a chicken. If the middle isn't done and the bird sits at room temperature so guests can pick at it all afternoon, the guests may get sick.

The shocker in allthis is that so much of the meat we eat is contaminated with feces. How can this be? In the case of chicken, the demand for huge numbers of low-priced birds--Americans ate 4.7 billion chickens in 1985--is answered by high-speed plants that can process 80 chickens a minute. Contamination of the meat can occur during defeathering, when the machinery sometimes presses the bird so hard that feces spurt from the cloaca and drip onto the feathers. The "rubber fingers" that remove the feathers can inadvertently press the bacteria onto the skin, where it can hide in the empty feather follicles. Contamination can also occur during disemboweling, when high-speed gutters may rip the intestine, spattering small amounts of fecal matter onto the carcass.

Meat from other poultry, as well as that from four-footedanimals, can be contaminated during slaughtering or processing. Ground meat, which is handled a lot, is more vulnerable to salmonella than other cuts, sometimes due to cross-contamination (some liquid from a chicken, for example, getting onto the beef chunks heading from the burger grinder).

The danger of getting salmonella from beef is compoundedby the fact that beef is often eaten rare. Salmonella researchers eschew steak tartare, even rare hamburgers. Most food-safety experts at the USDA recommend that all ground beef be cooked to at least 170[deg.] F. "It won't be pink any more," says Georgia Stevens Neruda, one of the USDA experts, "but it'll be safe to eat."

All these forms of contamination occur before thefood gets to a restaurant or a home kitchen, where the problems really begin. Although Americans are far more likely to get salmonellosis at home than at a restaurant, restaurant outbreaks attract more attention because large numbers of people getting sick simultaneously make the evening news.

"One problem is that we don't cook like grandmaused to," says Robert Tauxe, a salmonella specialist at the centers of Disease Control. Since the USDA set up a toll-free meat and poultry hotline (800-535-4555; in D.C., 447-3333) in 1985--in part to deal with salmonella--it has received 50,000 calls. Hotline questions have included "Is it O.K. to eat groceries left in the trunk of the car for a week?" and "Can spaghetti sauce left open on the counter for three days hurt me?"

"We hear from very young parents, and even childrenwho are trying to cook," Neruda says. "I'd have to say that the breakdown of the family unit has added to the food-safety problem."

Then there are the "baby boomers" who have rebelledagains the overcooked food of their youth. "We live in a kind of happy, yuppie, raw-is-better-and-healthier society," Tauxe says. "We want things fast. We want to heat and serve. Sometimes we don't wait for things to get thoroughly hot."

The microwave oven can be part of the solution, butsometimes it's part of the problem. Some older models don't heat evenly, and different models generate different levels of energy or use more or fewer microwaves a minute. "It's tough to explain on a label," says Dane Bernard, a microbiologist with the National Food Processors Association, "but six minutes in my microwave might equal ten minutes in yours."

As I recovered from salmonellosis, I resolved tochange my ways. I now never leave any food out at room temperature for more than two hours. I have a thermometer in my refrigerator to make sure it keeps foods colder than 40[deg.] F. I know that hot foods at a buffet should be kept at more than 140[deg.] F.--the corners too, not just the part over the Sterno.

I also know all the places salmonellae can hide. Ibought an acrylic cutting board for meat, because bacteria love to hunker down in little crevices in a wooden board: tnes of thousands can live in a single knife mark. An acrylic board, however, can be put in a dishwasher. Salmonellae can also dry up--sort of hibernate for a year or more--and then wake up when something inviting (i.e., your food) presents itself. Wiping a cutting board with hot, soapy water won't remove them. In fact, a dish rag or sponge is frequently the most bacteria-laden object in the kitchen. (I've also invented a nifty trick to overcome this. I now rinse my sponge with hot sudsy water and nuke it in the microwave until clouds of steam spew forth.) Salmonella bacteria can be zapped by rubbing down a board with one part bleach to eight parts water, followed by a clear-water rinse.

I don't thaw meat on the kitchen counter any more either,because salmonella bacteria can double in number so quickly that a tiny colony left at room temperature for the day can become a cast of millions. I now defrost frozen food in the refrigerator or the microwave oven. I wash poultry in cold water before I cook it, and I'm careful not to let raw meat juices drip on other foods. When I'm finished washing my meat, I rinse my sink with hot, soapy water. I also make sure the plate that carries meat back in from the grill isn't the same one that carried it out. Says Stephen Pretanik, the director of science and technology for the National Broiler Council: "The biggest problem with salmonella infection in meat isn't that the meat is undercooked, but that it's recontaminated in the kitchen after it's cooked. That's why leftovers get you." And the knife, the fork, anything you use on meat--and God forbid it should be a wooden utensil--should be thoroughly washed with hot, soapy water.

I've also learned that when it comes to salmonella, youcan't trust your nose. You can't see salmonellae, you can't smell them, and you can't taste them. "A lot of people think that if something left over doesn't make you go 'yuck,' it can't hurt," Neruda says. "they're wrong."

Now that I've got my kitchen under control, the questionis whom should I blame for all this salmonella that's going around. "What we have to wonder is to what degree is the individual responsible," Tauxe says. "You can't protect yourself against salmonella in every situation. It can't always be dealt with at a personal level. We're vulnerable."

And we may be getting more vulnerable. In theirpaper on the public-health dangers of the increasing numbers of antibiotic-resistant salmonellae, Tauxe and Mitchell Cohen, a CDC colleague, wrote, "Studies with the use of new methods of molecular biology make it possible to trace [antibiotic]-resistant salmonellae to their primary source--foods of animal origin." Half of all the antibiotics used in the United States in 1985 were fed to food animals--as growth enhancers, prophylaxes, and cures. Tauxe and Cohen think this has fostered resistant strains of bacteria.

Although salmonella poisoning in people isn't usuallytreated with antibiotics--because such treatment won't make the victim feel any better and may prolong the period during which he can infect others--antibiotic-resistant bacteria are risky for a number of reasons. Doctors sometimes prescribe antibiotics for infants, the feeble, and the elderly to prevent salmonella-triggered local infections or bacteremia (bacteria in the blood). Tauxe, Cohen, and others fear that as the number of antibiotic-resistant salmonellae goes up, the physician's choice of therapeutic antibiotics will go down.

And antibiotic-resistant salmonellae can hit a victimwhen he's already down. "Say you're taking antibiotics for a sore throat or dental work," Tauxe says. "You've now suppressed the good bacteria in your body, including the natural flora of the digestive tract that helps protect you from the invading salmonella. Along comes salmonella that happens to be resistant to that antibiotic, and it just thinks, 'Oh, boy,' and takes off. Now you have salmonellosis."

At the FDA, which is responsible for ensuring thepurity of milk and dairy products, John Kvenberg, a microbiologist, says, "The load of pathogens coming at us in our food supply today is out of control. At the FDA we've never worked harder, never been busier. We're taking a hard look at critical safety control points during manufacturing."

Over at the Food Safety and Inspection office of theUSDA, which has jurisdiction over meat and poultry, officials are beset by accusations that they've been asleep at the salmonella switch. "That's not true," says Danielle Schor, a public-affairs specialist. "We realize there's a problem, and we're going after it."

To that end, the USDA is researching ways to help industryclean up its act. "We're looking at adding chlorine or acetic acid to the chiller sprays in meat-processing plants," Schor says. "We've petitioned the FDA to allow meat packers to irradiate poultry at levels sufficient to kill salmonellae. We're urging producers to look for safe feeds that aren't contaminated with salmonellae. And, most important, we're looking into voluntary microbial standars for meats. What we'll say to the meat industry is, 'You meet these standards, and we're going to let you say on the label.' We think if just one major producer has this labeling, the consumer will notice, and the others will fall in line."

The reduction of antibiotics in the food chain, a stepthat's stalled in the Washington bureaucracy, may soon be forced on meat producers by consumers. In my neighborhood gourmet market, a sign over the pricey birds promises they've been raised without antibiotics. The same claim is made for beef in a local supermarket. Indeed, in the face of generally slumping beef sales, the demand for low-fat, drug-free beef is rising. But while the FDA has proposed banning the use of tetracycline and penicillin in animal feeds since 1977, Congress, influenced by powerful industries lobbies, has repeatedly asked the FDA to conduct further tests.

Some is offered by newly patented, rapid salmonella-screeningtests that allow those who process food to detect contamination within 24 hours--about a quarter of the time older lab methods take. "Still, what we basically have to do is assume salmonella is everywhere," Bernard says, "and process foods to keep bacteria from the consumer."

But just in case those bad bacteria find their way intomy kitchen, I'll be there disinfecting my sponges, rinsking my poultry, and junking my yuppie menu. I'd forgotten how good and comforting a post roast, braised until the beef is tender--and safe--tastes.
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Title Annotation:preventing salmonella poisoning
Author:Moser, Penny Ward
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1987
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