Does the thought of eating undercooked chicken make you shudder? It should, because there’s a real risk of becoming contaminated with salmonella. Salmonella is the bacteria that cause salmonellosis, an infectious food-borne zoonotic disease that can lead to serious health problems in some people. (Zoonoses are diseases that can be transmitted directly or indirectly between animals and humans).

There are more than 2,000 types of Salmonella bacteria around the world. Most are found in the digestive tracts of mammals such as pigs, cattle, dogs, cats, hedgehogs and rodents, as well as in reptiles such as lizards, snakes and turtles. They are also widely found in birds. What’s more, the bacteria can survive for months in water, in feces and in the soil. Once ingested, they multiply in the small intestine and make their way into the intestinal mucosa, leading to what is commonly known as salmonella poisoning.

Contamination

In 90% of cases, salmonellosis is caused by eating food that has been contaminated with animal faces. Unfortunately, contaminated food presents no tell-tale signs or odours.

Salmonella can be found in certain raw or undercooked foods such as:

  • Meat and poultry
  • Seafood and fish
  • Eggs (and products containing eggs)

Cooking food is the only sure way to destroy salmonella. It’s worth noting, however, that all foods (including fruits and vegetables) can carry salmonella, especially if they have been washed with contaminated water or have come into contact with contaminated raw meat. The best way to protect yourself from salmonella poisoning is with impeccable hygiene.

Most cases of salmonellosis occur in people who have eaten fruits and vegetables that become contaminated by growing in soil that has been polluted by animal waste or unsafe water. In fact, you’re much more likely to get salmonellosis from eating raw fruits and vegetables than from eating undercooked poultry.

Impacts

Nearly 90,000 Canadians become infected with salmonellosis each year from eating contaminated food. This represents an economic burden of nearly $1 billion each and every year in Canada alone, in terms of work absenteeism, medical expenses and economic losses for food companies.

While certainly unpleasant, salmonella poisoning is usually not serious. Most infected people merely suffer from abdominal cramps, diarrhea and fever. However, it can be fatal in the elderly, in infants and in people with weakened immune systems.

Tips

While it’s impossible to prevent salmonella poisoning altogether, there are certain measures you can take to reduce your risk of contamination. Always follow basic food safety rules, such as by defrosting food in the refrigerator, in cold water or with a microwave oven; never at room temperature, and by thoroughly cooking meat and poultry. And, as always, wash your hands often with soap and water.