Don’t get sick from salmonella this holiday season

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The holidays are here, which means it’s a good time to pay attention to safe food handling practices when cooking and baking meals and treats. But what are the best ways to reduce your risk of illnesses such as salmonella infection when you find yourself in the kitchen or even dining at a restaurant?

I had the chance to interview Martin Wiedmann, the Gellert Family professor in food safety and food science at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Wiedmann, a food scientist and veterinarian who also is codirector of the New York State Integrated Food Safety Center of Excellence, strives to create a world with a safer food supply by developing and communicating scientific knowledge needed to prevent and control foodborne diseases caused by salmonella and other bacteria.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CNN: What is salmonella?

Martin Wiedmann: Salmonella is a microorganism that is very small. You can’t see or smell it. It can be found in many different places including raw animal foods. If you digest it, it can cause foodborne illness, but it can also be transferred from human to human and animal to human.

You can be infected with salmonella and not show symptoms. That can be important because you can carry salmonella but not know it. Then you can contaminate your hands and food. Not all animals that have salmonella have symptoms either.

CNN: How many people get sick by it? 

Wiedmann: In the United States, 1.35 million people every year get salmonellosis, the illness called by salmonella. Each year, about 26,500 people in the US get hospitalized, and the bacteria is responsible for about 420 deaths annually.

These numbers are estimates that account for the fact that if 30 people get salmonella, only one may go to the doctor and submit a stool sample and get a result that is then reported to the (US) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

You should wash your hands before handling food and after every time you touch raw meat. It's wise to avoid using the same utensils on raw and cooked products. - miodrag ignjatovic/E+/Getty Images
You should wash your hands before handling food and after every time you touch raw meat. It's wise to avoid using the same utensils on raw and cooked products. - miodrag ignjatovic/E+/Getty Images

CNN: Which sources are most risky?

Wiedmann: While raw poultry, raw pork and raw meat as well as raw egg and raw milk represent a particularly high risk, many foods can sometimes transmit salmonella.

You can also get salmonella from animals infected with it. Reptiles, farm animals and pet chickens have been linked to outbreaks, but other pets such as dogs may also be a risk, so be careful around pets.

Also, I do not recommend giving your pet a raw pet food diet, because that raw pet food has a high risk of salmonella (contamination).

CNN: Will you always get salmonellosis if you ingest the bacteria?

Wiedmann: You can ingest salmonella and have multiple different outcomes.

If you ingest a low level of salmonella, it may be killed in the acidic environment of your stomach, or it may be inhibited in the intestines by other bacteria that are naturally present there.

You can ingest salmonella, and then it can grow in intestines, but it doesn’t cause illness. And then you can ingest it, it grows in the intestines, and it causes illness.

You might ingest salmonella 100 times, and 99% of the time you are fine, but then one time you get sick. The more salmonella you ingest, the higher the risk of getting sick.

CNN: Are some people more susceptible to infection?

Wiedmann: If you take antacids, you are more likely to get foodborne illness. Taking antibiotics also increases the risk for infection. Anyone with a weakened immune system, including the elderly, young children and pregnant women, are at higher risk. Taking immunosuppressive drugs also puts you at higher risk.

CNN: What are the symptoms of infection? Can some be serious?

Wiedmann: The typical ones are vomiting and diarrhea. Stomach pains, nausea, headaches and fever can also occur. Sometimes salmonella can leave the intestines and go into the bloodstream, which can cause much more severe illness, like sepsis, and those people often end up hospitalized. You can also get severely dehydrated and need IV fluids. If you get a high fever or bloody diarrhea, you should contact your doctor.

CNN: A recent salmonella outbreak linked to cantaloupes has resulted in at least 61 hospitalizations and two deaths. Many of the cantaloupes have been recalled; however, according to the CDC, “Investigators are working to identify any additional cantaloupe products that may be contaminated.” What should consumers do to reduce their risk?

Wiedmann: The key part is to follow the recall and make sure you are not consuming recalled products. This applies even if you have recalled cantaloupe or recalled cut cantaloupe and already consumed part of it without getting sick; there have been cases where people incorrectly assumed that recalled products were safe, just because they consumed part of it and did not get sick.

In general, it is always a good idea to follow guidance from the Food and Drug Administration with food handling; as for produce, the FDA specifically recommends this: Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running tap water, including those with skins and rinds that are not eaten. Scrub firm produce with a clean produce brush.

In the long term, it is important that the FDA work with industry to identify the root cause of this outbreak to avoid similar outbreaks from occurring in the future.

CNN: My daughters have been known to eat raw cookie dough. How dangerous is this?

Wiedmann: Raw cookie dough represents a risk for salmonella, even if you have eaten raw cookie dough in the past without getting sick. While all raw cookie dough represents a risk, making cookie dough with flour from large national manufacturers may decrease your risk as they often have stringent programs to test for salmonella and reduce the risk of contamination.

Counter to popular opinion, making cookie dough with organic flour and eggs from the farmers market is unlikely to reduce your risk. Smaller farmers may not have the sophisticated testing and food safety schemes in place that large companies use.

CNN: Do you have to be concerned when dining in restaurants or outside the home?

Wiedmann: Yes. Don’t order your burger medium-rare; order it well-done. If you look at chicken and it is undercooked, send it back. For steak, medium-rare is fine; for ground beef, it is not. That’s because if salmonella is present, it will be on the outside of meat — but as soon as you grind it, the outside becomes the inside.

CNN: Is sushi safe? Or steak tartare?

Wiedmann: Steak tartare is as risky as raw ground beef. Even if you have a Michelin-star chef, I don’t recommend eating it. In fact, the risk from a celebrity chef may even be higher, because the chef may grind the meat himself and serve it to you, whereas ground beef from a retail store is tested according to US Department of Agriculture standards (for E. coli).

Sushi and seafood do not carry zero risk but are less risky than raw meat. Do not eat raw fish if you are taking antacids or antibiotics or are immunocompromised. Young children, pregnant women and the elderly should also avoid raw fish.

CNN: What should you do if you get infected?

Wiedmann: If you get sick, go to the doctor. Do not take antibiotics that you may have and think they will help. It can make the illness worse. Be sure to rest and stay hydrated. If you have blood in your stool or a fever above 102 degrees (Fahrenheit), or dizziness, go to your doctor.

Best ways to avoid getting infected with salmonella

To limit your chances of salmonella infection, cook raw meat and poultry properly. That means a minimum internal temperature of 145 degrees F for beef, pork, lamb and veal; 160 F for ground meat; and 165 F for any poultry. (See the USDA’s safe minimum internal temperature chart here). Be sure to use a thermometer to measure meat temperatures and place it in the thickest part of the meat.

When it comes to storing raw meat in the refrigerator, place it at the lowest point possible or take other precautions so the juices don’t drip onto other foods. Wrapping or storing it in a bag can help prevent dripping.

Do not wash raw meat and poultry before cooking. The juices can splash and get on surfaces and can contaminate counters, knives and cutting boards. You should wash or peel fruits and vegetables before eating or cutting them, however. It is also wise to avoid using the same utensils on raw and cooked products. If a spatula touches raw meat on a grill for example, that spatula can also be a source of salmonella.

Wash your hands before handling food and after every time you touch raw meat. Clean all surfaces with warm soapy water — including the sink — after handling raw meats. Then, sanitize to ensure that all bacteria are killed. You can microwave sponges or run them through the dishwasher, or you can bleach them, according to Wiedmann.

It may be tempting to taste raw cookie dough or cake batter when baking, but consuming raw eggs or raw flour from baking mixes or breads poses a risk. Flour does not go through a sterilization process, and wheat is grown in fields with birds and mice that can carry salmonella.

When shopping, do not assume that organic or local foods are safer than nonorganic versions. Sometimes people think, “My chicken is local, or organic,” so the risk is lower. It is not, according to Wiedmann. “Even if you know the chicken’s name — or even the farmer’s name — that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have salmonella. It is equally risky, and the problem is when people think it is less risky so they don’t take proper precautions, like ‘I can wash this turkey in my sink because it came from the local farm,’” Wiedmann said.

Finally, don’t kiss your pets. Wash your hands after touching animals and be especially careful with reptiles, including turtles, iguanas and snakes.

Lisa Drayer is a nutritionist, an author and a CNN health and nutrition contributor.

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