There are currently three ongoing Salmonella outbreaks across the country, with at least 642 sick. Two people have died, and dozens have been hospitalized because of their illness.
There are 45 people sick in the Salmonella outbreak linked to Chipotle restaurants in Minnesota. Four hundred eighteen people are sick with Salmonella linked to slicer cucumbers imported from Mexico. And as many as 160 people are sick in the outbreak at the Fig & Olive restaurant in Washington, D.C.
Using the standard multiplier for Salmonella outbreaks, 30.3, which means that for every case reported there are 30 that go unreported, that means there may be more than 16,000 Americans sickened with Salmonella just this summer in the U.S. in these three clusters. What is going on?
Nationwide, Salmonella food poisoning sickens more than 1,000,000 people every year. Most of the illnesses are individual cases that are not counted in outbreaks. Still, these three large outbreaks happening at the same time is unusual.
Salmonella outbreaks in the past have been linked to everything from bean sprouts to chicken to cucumbers and tomatoes. It’s a fact of life that foods are easily contaminated with pathogenic bacteria. This contamination can happen in the fields where produce is grown, on factory farms, during processing, handling, and distribution. Food can be contaminated in restaurant kitchens, in grocery store delis, and in home kitchens.
In the Chipotle restaurant outbreak, officials suspect a dish containing uncooked produce may be to blame. The Salmonella outbreak linked to imported cucumbers has sickened people cooking at home, and perhaps those who bought deli items made with those cucumbers. The outbreak at the Fig & Olive restaurant is still under investigation and no one has released any information as to the source of the bacteria.
Unfortunately, the consumer really is the last defense against food poisoning. Being aware that foods can and are contaminated with pathogenic bacteria is the first step toward protecting yourself and your family. When you prepare food at home, make sure you always thoroughly wash and scrub fresh produce, avoid cross-contamination between raw meats, poultry, and eggs and foods eaten uncooked, and wash your hands before preparing food, after handling raw meats and poultry, and before eating.
When eating out, never order rare or underdone hamburgers, seafood, or poultry, and look at inspection reports for the restaurant you choose before you go. If you see anything that seems suspicious, such as a dirty tablecloth or foods that aren’t hot when you are served, don’t eat the food.
Still, taking these precautions is no guarantee you won’t get sick. So it’s important to know the signs and symptoms of food poisoning, especially Salmonella infections.
The symptoms usually begin six to seventy-two hours after exposure. Abdominal cramps, vomiting, diarrhea that may be bloody, nausea, loss of appetite, fever, chills, headache, and muscle cramps are all symptoms of food poisoning. If you experience these symptoms, and they last for more than a few hours, see your doctor.
Your doctor should order tests, including a stool sample, to see if there are any pathogenic bacteria in your system. Salmonella infections are usually treated with antibiotics, and the earlier you are treated the better the outcome. Salmonella infections are reportable illnesses. Your doctor will report your case to public health officials, and they will check to see if the bacteria that sickened you has sickened anyone else.
When more people are identified in these outbreaks, it gives officials more clues about the illness and how it happened. This can make it easier to identify and announce what caused the outbreak, and easier for officials to prevent more illnesses.