A recent recall of ground turkey has left many consumers wondering about the safety of their food. To help answer some of our questions about Salmonella in poultry, Best Food Facts spoke with two of our Food System Experts from Auburn University; Dr. James Barbaree, Associate Director for the Auburn University Center for Detection and Food Safety and Scharnagel Professor of Biological Sciences and Dr. Shelly McKee, Associate Professor, Department of Poultry Science, The Poultry Products Safety and Quality Peak of Excellence Program.
A microscopic member of a group of organisms called bacteria, Salmonella is the genus name and the main species is enterica. Within this species there are approximately 2,500 serovars, with Heidelberg, the type of Salmonella in question in this case, being one of them. The two most prevalent serovars causing disease in the U. S are enteriditis and typhimurium, which are often associated with eggs and poultry. Heidelberg on the other hand has been associated with turkey.
Salmonella is found naturally in humans and animals, but human disease is usually connected with foods of animal origin. It can be transmitted directly from animals or foods and water contaminated with Salmonella. It is sometimes transmitted via human-to-human contact.
When Salmonella is ingested by humans, it gets into the gastrointestinal tract and can cause diarrhea. Salmonella sickness can progress into a serious condition, or the disease can sometimes pass with time. Today, we have so many people living longer – many living with subacute infections – and when they contract something like Salmonella, it becomes serious because they cannot fight it off very well. Of course, healthy people can also develop a serious condition from this organism.
Salmonella is self-limiting, meaning that most immune systems can fight it off without medical treatment. In the elderly or very young though, or someone who is immunocompromised, their immune systems may have more difficulty doing so. The problem arises if the Salmonella strain happens to one that has developed antibiotic resistance, as is the case with this Heidelberg outbreak. If the treating physician doesn’t know that it’s an antibiotic-resistant strain, he or she may choose an antibiotic that the organism isn’t responsive to, which prolongs the illness.
Finding Salmonella on poultry or in the environment is not unusual. When consumers handle poultry, they should remember that everything that touches poultry can carry Salmonella, if it is present. It’s important to wash utensils and the work surface with hot soap and water, and to make sure the meat is cooked to an inside temperature or 160-165 degrees F.
Consumers need to know that those involved in poultry production and processing usually do everything they can to try to prevent Salmonella from getting into meat. Sometimes it happens though, and the meat is recalled because it is legally an adulterant in food. There’s always a chance that Salmonella, along with other organisms, can occur on poultry or other meats, and consumers need to take precautions to safely handle meat and other foods.
The United States has a very good tracking system for foodborne illness, or being able to trace the illness back to the source. Salmonella can come from a lot of different sources, not just poultry. For example, Salmonella outbreaks have happened in peanut butter, cilantro, and tomatoes, just to name a few. Salmonella found in poultry is a human pathogen - poultry are asymptomatic carriers of the serotype that makes humans sick.
Since July 1, 2011, there is a new and more stringent standard from the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service now in place for poultry meat, a USDA-regulated product. The USDA is also going above and beyond to control Salmonella in poultry products.
For more information about how to properly handle poultry meat, please check out this fact sheet from the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/Chicken_from_Farm_To_Table/index.asp#12.