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January 19, 2009

Salmonella: America Gives a Stowaway a Ride


Salmonella is both a disease and a symptom of something even worse.


Let’s back up a couple of days to an announcement by Kellogg that it was pulling certain of its snack foods off the shelves in response to a salmonella outbreak that has sickened a couple of hundred people and killed a handful in several states.


If you were to read a dossier on the salmonella bacteria, you might be astonished to hear about one outbreak that had spread across state lines very easily and in a short period of time. That’s because the salmonella bacteria does not travel easily between people. In fact, it’s a dead-end disease, since to become infected with it you typically need to come into contact with animal waste, where the bacteria naturally lives.


Thanks to how we grow, ship and consume food, that is no longer the case. The relationship between people and their food is no longer as simple as to drop a seed into the ground and pick off the vegetables when they ripen. Today, we get our food from middleman processing companies like Kellogg, who get their raw materials someplace else.


That led to last week’s recall on behalf of Kellogg. The company’s recall wasn’t their fault, but the fault of a peanut processing facility in Georgia. Kellogg wasn’t the only company affected. The company that makes Little Debbie snack cakes recalled peanut butter crackers, the Midwestern grocery chain Hy-Vee recalled some of its bakery products and other companies recalled jars of peanut butter.


The facility is not owned by any of them. In fact, Kellogg’s headquarters is hundreds of miles away in Battle Creek, Michigan. Hy-Vee is headquartered in Iowa.


It is a complicated, sometimes convoluted path food takes from producer to our dinner tables, and most people could be forgiven if they didn’t entirely understand it. At the bottom, however, at the level of food producer and processor, is where the danger lies.


While the last two major outbreaks of salmonella have involved vegetables – the last was in June 2008, and involved tomatoes and peppers – it is most commonly associated with chicken meat. About one-quarter of chickens sold in U.S. grocery stores are believed to be contaminated with salmonella bacteria, which is why consumers are advised to cook it thoroughly in the same way that they are advised to cook pork thoroughly to avoid trichinosis.


How vegetables – tomatoes appear most susceptible – get infected with the salmonella bacteria is currently a matter of study. One possible source could be a favored practice for getting rid of waste produced by massive livestock operations.


What is known is that outbreaks of food-borne illnesses have been on the rise since 1990, as have the percentage of chickens that test positive for salmonella. The latest federal figures are that as many as one-quarter of chickens are contaminated by it, and that it offers no visible indicators for its presence.


While the raw number of people sickened is very low, especially when compared to the number of people who get sick from the flu every year, it’s something that occurs mostly below people’s radar, until an outbreak takes place. It’s also given salmonella and other infectious agents associated with animal waste more public awareness than warranted. Again, it’s difficult to pass salmonella from one person to the next.


What it points to is the general lack of responsibility people take in feeding themselves. As long as the grocery shelves are stocked, people don’t seem to care the path it takes to get there. It’s an annoying little detail. Yet the same network has produced more frequent multi-state food-borne illness outbreaks by giving a ride to a stowaway that ordinarily wouldn’t move more than five feet if left undisturbed.


© 2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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