Lessons from an Outbreak

NDSU Microbiology
by NDSU Microbiology

Guest Blogger: Katie Sanders, Undergraduate in Microbiology

"Beef recall due to E. coli in Canada"

"Salmonella outbreak in peanut butter"

"Chicken contamination leads to hundreds developing illness"

These news headlines are recent, but also have been heard for years and years. As common as these may sound though, they are not near as relevant as they could be. This is because there are many people and lots of research dedicated to keeping the food system clean and healthy for its consumers. This group of people tends to be overlooked because it is greatly assumed that food is healthy from the start.

In the United States, we are quite lucky to have such high standards placed on the companies that produce, process, and prepare our food. They are regulated by many different organizations, government standards, as well as company standards. Despite all of this though, we have our own subset of food safety problems.

Food contamination leads to nearly 50 million cases of illness every year in the US. Although some microbes only cause discomfort for most, they can be deadly and lead to hundreds of thousands of fatalities a year. In one of the latest set of numbers published by the CDC it is stated that nearly 1 in 6 Americans (48 million people) become ill from food borne illness. 128,000 of these people are hospitalized, with nearly 3000 fatalities. Besides sickness, food contamination leads to millions of dollars of economic loss as well.

One prime example of this is the current Salmonella outbreak in chicken. As of October 17, 2013, 338 people have been identified as being infected from this outbreak. Interestingly enough, the infection has been traced to seven different strains of Salmonella Heidelberg. The contaminated chicken has been linked back to Foster Farms, which is based out of California where 75% of the cases have been reported.

The first reportable case of the infection traces back to March 1, 2013. The infection takes approximately two to three weeks to set in; therefore, there has been a delay in reporting some of the more recent cases. The outbreak has been reported in 20 different states.

The main store that the recall has been centered around is Costco in El Camino, California. In total, they have had to recall over 20,000 units of rotisserie chicken products. This translates to over 89,000 pounds of chicken.

The variety of strains that are being linked to this outbreak are, unfortunately, resistant to many of the typically prescribed antibiotics. This has made treating the infection slightly more difficult. The infection is one that can be self-limiting and eventually die off, although for about 14% of the infected patients in this outbreak, it has become a blood infection. Of the 338 cases reported, 40% of them have required hospitalization. Fortunately though, none of the infections have caused a fatality.

So how did the bacteria end up on a final product? How can consumers help keep themselves healthy?

To answer the first question, there are slight traces of Salmonella on almost all raw chicken products. The products that were sold and consumed in this outbreak, however, had not been properly sanitized, and that is what led to infection.

Consumers can help keep themselves safe by taking proper food sanitation steps. The CDC and USDA-FSIS recommend a few methods and steps that people can do, including the following:

  • Cleaning hands, utensils, and food contact surfaces with warm, soapy water.
  • Separating raw meat from other foods; this means in shopping bags and cutting boards in the kitchen.
  • Cooking the chicken fully; this means the chicken should be internally heated to at least 165°F.
  • Chilling the chicken promptly once it is prepared. Leftovers should be refrigerated or frozen within 2 hours of being prepared.

Although this outbreak is still having its effects, soon it will be under control. But that doesn’t mean the work will stop. More research will be done on how the chicken became contaminated, the methods that need to be implemented to stop a similar outbreak, and how this outbreak can teach us about response to infection. This work will be used to help prevent future outbreaks. All of this work will be done by food safety experts and researchers. Food safety managers at food processing plants will implement all that they learn. And we, as consumers, can take steps to keep the food safe. It takes lots of people to keep food safe, but luckily there are people that are dedicated to doing so.

For more information on this outbreak and more food safety information, click here.

This entry is part of the fall MICR 354 scientific writing students' blog series.

Image source: NIAID.