Is Any Food Safe? Salmonella Shows Up in Surprising Places

How to protect yourself from food poisoning
goldfish crackers

Think that food poisoning is only a risk with chicken that’s too pink or deviled eggs left on the picnic table too long? It turns out that salmonella, a type of bacteria that can cause foodborne illness, also can taint packaged snacks and cereals.

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That’s what prompted a recall of kid-favorite Pepperidge Farm Goldfish® crackers, Ritz Crackers and Kellogg’s Honey Smacks® cereal. The key lesson: Just because food is processed and boxed or bagged for a long shelf life, that doesn’t make it bacteria-free.

“The safety of this food depends on the processing employed, the bacteria involved and quality control at the plant,” says infectious disease physician Alan Taege, MD. “Little is known thus far about how, or even if, salmonella has tainted some packaged foods. It may have occurred after processing, during packing.”

The ingredient being blamed for the current scare is whey powder, an additive used in flavoring. A frozen dinner, Swiss rolls and one brand of bread also have been recalled because they contain the whey powder. And there may be more recalls to come, says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Foods you never thought could cause food poisoning

Salmonella, bacteria commonly in the intestines and feces of people and animals, causes about 1.2 million illnesses and 450 deaths in the U.S. per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most illnesses are due to eating contaminated food.

Food can become contaminated with salmonella when it comes in contact with animal or human waste, even in trace amounts. The bacteria can be found in:

  • Beef, chicken, pork and turkey — including frozen entrees, pot pies and chicken nuggets.
  • Seafood and shellfish.
  • Eggs.
  • Dairy products made with unpasteurized milk — including feta, Brie and other soft cheeses; ice cream and yogurt. (Whey powder is the dry form of a byproduct of cheesemaking.)
  • Fruits and unpasteurized juices.
  • Sprouts.
  • Vegetables.
  • Nut butters.
  • Flour. (This is partly why you shouldn’t eat raw dough or batter. It’s not just an egg thing.)

If this list weren’t extensive enough, any food can contain illness-inducing bacteria if it’s touched by another contaminated food or unclean surface, utensil or hand.

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Salmonella or stomach flu?

How likely could you get sick by eating these foods? That’s uncertain, says Dr. Taege.

“Very young people, older individuals and those with weakened immune systems are more susceptible to salmonella poisoning,” he says. “It also depends on the amount of bacteria consumed.”

Symptoms of salmonella poisoning include:

  • Diarrhea.
  • Fever.
  • Abdominal cramps.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.

Symptoms can show up 12 hours to three days after eating the tainted food.

“It’s difficult to tell food poisoning from other types of gastroenteritis,” says Dr. Taege. “Contact your physician if you have symptoms. Most symptoms will go away on their own within four to seven days. Occasionally, patients require antibiotics if symptoms persist.”

The best advice: Eat clean

If you have symptoms or are around someone who does, keep your hands clean — especially before putting them near your mouth. Salmonella will be in the stool of the infected person and can spread due to improper hygiene.

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Also, avoid food that is recalled and thought to be contaminated. Even if you have already eaten some of it, destroy whatever is left.

“Foods involved in recalls usually don’t appear suspicious or concerning,” says Dr. Taege.

Do not eat leftovers that have an abnormal appearance or odor. And always be wary of improperly cooked foods.

“The best way to avoid salmonella poisoning is to use proper food hygiene and properly cook and store food,” says Dr. Taege.

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