Food safety expert: Athens outbreak underscores importance of safeguarding against salmonella

Published 10:19 am Friday, October 11, 2013

Special to the Journal

An Alabama Cooperative Extension System food safety specialist says that the recent outbreak of salmonella that, according to one news account, has possibly affected more than 80 people in Athens this week is not only a reminder of the insidious nature of the potentially deadly pathogen but also why people should take proactive steps to protect themselves from exposure.

While health officials are still uncertain of the cause of these recent outbreaks, the source appears to be the annual Bean Day Lunch, a fundraising event held on behalf of the Foundation on Aging, according to a report posted Oct. 8 on

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Food safety specialist Dr. Jean Weese, an Auburn University professor of poultry science who heads Alabama Extension’s food safety team, says Salmonella is insidious in terms of how readily it can infect food and ultimately people.

One of the common sources of foodborne illness in the United States, salmonella is the name of a group of bacteria found in the intestines of animals.  However, when the excreta of the animals get in the soil, bacteria can be carried to almost any food, Weese says.

Water can also be contaminated with salmonella.

“We have seen salmonella outbreaks related to all types of foods and animals,” Weese says. “We commonly think of chickens and eggs as the source of salmonella food contamination, but the truth is that we’ve seen outbreaks in everything from peanut butter to pet shop turtles.”

Symptoms typically last 4 to 7, days and most people recover without treatment. However, the bacteria can cause serious illness among older adults, infants and people with chronic diseases, according to Weese.

There are several effective ways to reduce the risk of exposure to these bacteria, starting with adequate heating.

“Salmonella is killed by heat treatments, such as cooking and pasteurization,” Weese says, adding that this is the reason why undercooked chicken, eggs and ground meat should be avoided.

Cross-contamination, typically during food preparation, is a major source of salmonella contamination and may prove to be the cause of the recent outbreak in Athens, according to Weese.

“Washing a raw chicken in the sink is not a good idea, which may result in both a contaminated chicken and sink,” she says.

Instead, Weese recommends taking fresh chicken out of the package and cooking it without washing it.

“Packaged chicken at the grocery story has been washed many times before it arrives at the store,” Weese says.

Any wash basin or surface that has been exposed to raw chicken should be sanitized before any other food comes into contact with it.

“This can be done with a sanitizing cloth, or you can make your own sanitizer by mixing 2 tablespoons of chlorine bleach with a gallon of water,” Weese says.

Because this solution loses its strength over time, a new solution should be mixed at least weekly or even more frequently, especially if it is not kept in a capped container.

“People with compromised immune systems, such as diabetic, cancer or AIDS patients, should be especially mindful of these safety practices and also of the foods they consume.

“If you’re at a restaurant and employees don’t appear to be handling or serving the food correctly, you shouldn’t eat there,” Weese says. “While it may sound simple and direct, this advice may save your life.”

There are many different types of salmonella, according to Weese.  The most common types in the United States are Salmonella typhimurium and Salmonella enteritidis. But many other serotypes cause illness, including Salmonella typhi, the organism that causes typhoid fever.