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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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