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Play Clean in Struggle Against Salmonella

Posted - Jun. 5, 2004 at 7:20 a.m.



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With salmonella infection, it used to be that consumers' main concern was how to handle the chicken.

Raw poultry and meat are still the biggest culprits in the thousands of salmonella infections annually, but inspectors are finding more outbreaks blamed on contaminated produce and dry goods.

On Thursday, a farmer in Kent recalled alfalfa sprouts sold to food institutions in Washington and Oregon because of their recent link to 12 cases of salmonellosis.

Two weeks ago, a grower in California recalled 13 million pounds of raw almonds because of outbreaks in Western states. The almonds were sold under several store brands, including Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Costco's Kirkland brand, Delaurenti at Pike Place market and Larry's Markets.

Lettuce, orange juice, cheese and melon are other foods that have been found in the past year to cause salmonella infections.

Salmonella isn't necessarily more prevalent now than in years past, but detection has improved. State and federal inspectors coordinating with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have become much better at tracking outbreaks, said Joe Baca, Compliance director for the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

If you've ever had a tummy ache, a slight fever or diarrhea after eating, chances are you ate salmonella or any one of its thousands of cousins, say food safety experts.

"Probably most of us eat salmonella in any given week," said Janet Anderberg, with the food safety program at the state Department of Health. "Most people have mild discomfort" and do not see a doctor or report it to health officials.

People with weakened immune systems are most at risk. Children and older and unhealthy people can become severely ill or die.

The average person will not feel symptoms, if any, until three of four days after the infection. By then, that person could have spread the contamination. "That's why it is so important to wash your hands," Anderberg said.

Of the 700 to 800 cases of food-borne salmonella infections reported to the state each year, most involve children and the elderly, and infections increase come summer.

Bacteria usually thrive in warm temperatures. The warm weather means that people bust out the grill, eat lots of fresh produce and play in the dirt and grass. "It is in the birds, not just chicken, and it is in the soil," the FDA's Baca said. Produce is most easily contaminated by the use of manure for fertilizer.

Anderberg said accidentally ingesting salmonella is fairly easy.

One big cause of infection is melon, particularly cantaloupe.

"Imagine what a cantaloupe looks like," Anderberg said. The rough rind can trap dirt and "other stuff" in its crevices.

"Now, how do you eat cantaloupe? You take a big knife and slice through down the middle," Anderberg said. "When you do that, you drag everything from the skin down over the smooth, sweet, juicy part."

Another way to spread the bacteria is at the grocery store. Not only can salmonella spread in the juices that drip from packages of raw meat, but because the bacteria can survive for weeks, salmonella could be on the shopping cart.

But a lot of risk can be avoided by exercising good hygiene.

"When you're handling food, wash your hands," Anderberg said. "Don't just rinse them off, wash them, scrub them."

To see more of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, for online features, or to subscribe, go to http://seattlep-I.com.

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