While the food we eat in Canada is generally very safe, sometimes it may carry bacteria that can make us sick, like Salmonella.
What is Salmonella?
Salmonella bacteria are found naturally in the intestines of animals, reptiles and birds. The bacteria are usually transmitted to people when they eat foods contaminated with animal feces (stool). Contaminated foods often come from animal sources, like poultry, beef, milk or eggs. But all foods, including fruits and vegetables, can become contaminated. It is important to remember that foods that are contaminated with bacteria can have a completely normal appearance. This is why it is important to always use safe food handling techniques.
People who eat food contaminated by Salmonella can become ill with salmonellosis. The disease is more common in summer than in winter. Like other foodborne illnesses, the symptoms of salmonellosis can feel like stomach flu, but they can also develop into serious illness with long-lasting effects.
How do people get sick?
Did you know?
Intestinal illness can be caused by viruses, bacteria or parasites, and usually involves vomiting and diarrhea. People often call it the flu, though it is in no way related to the influenza virus, which causes respiratory illness.
Both animals and people can be carriers of Salmonella. They can then spread the bacteria to foods, surfaces, other animals or people. Food can become contaminated with Salmonella during butchering, when food is handled by a person infected with Salmonella, or from cross-contamination when raw foods or pets are handled improperly.
The most common way of getting salmonellosis is by eating contaminated foods that have not been cooked properly. Common sources of Salmonella include:
- raw and undercooked meat (especially poultry)
- raw or undercooked eggs
- homemade salad dressings, hollandaise sauce, mayonnaise, ice cream, cookie dough, tiramisu and frostings
- raw fruits and vegetables (especially sprouts and cantaloupes) and their juices
- unpasteurized dairy products, like raw milk and raw milk cheeses, cream-filled deserts and toppings
- pet treats
- fish and shrimp
You can also be exposed to Salmonella by:
- not washing fresh fruits and vegetables before eating them
- not thoroughly cleaning work surfaces used to prepare raw meat and other foods
- not washing your hands with soap after handling raw meat or using the bathroom
- not washing your hands with soap after handling pets, especially those with diarrhea or exotic pets like snakes, turtles and reptiles
What are the symptoms and treatment?
People infected with Salmonella can experience a wide range of symptoms. Some do not get sick at all, though they can still spread the infection to others. Others feel as though they have a bad case of the flu. Still others become seriously ill and must be hospitalized.
Most people with salmonellosis develop the following symptoms 6 to 72 hours after being infected:
- abdominal cramps
- headache (with sudden onset)
- vomiting (sometimes)
The illness usually lasts four to seven days and most people recover without treatment. As with any disease causing diarrhea or vomiting, people infected should drink plenty of liquids to replace lost body fluids and prevent dehydration. In severe cases, patients may need to be given fluids intravenously. Although anyone can get salmonellosis infection, pregnant women, people with weakened immune systems, young children and the elderly are most at risk for developing serious complications.
In a small number of cases, Salmonella may spread from the intestines to the blood stream and other body sites, causing severe illness and, in vulnerable people, death. In cases of severe illness, patients may be treated with antibiotics. However, some Salmonella bacteria have become resistant to many commonly used antibiotics.
A small number of infected people go on to develop chronic pains in their joints, irritation of the eyes and painful urination, a condition called Reiter's Syndrome. It can last for months or years, sometimes leading to chronic arthritis, which is difficult to treat.
Because many different illnesses cause the same symptoms as salmonellosis, the only way to diagnose it is through laboratory tests on the stools of infected people. Once Salmonella bacteria have been identified, further testing can determine the type of Salmonella and the appropriate antibiotics to use in treatment.
How do I avoid getting sick?
Food safety tip
When cooking a chicken or turkey, it is safest to cook the stuffing in a separate dish, to prevent cross-contamination and undercooking. For more on cooking poultry safely, see Poultry Safety.
Foods contaminated with Salmonella look, smell and taste normal. The good news is, Salmonella and many other harmful bacteria can be killed by cooking food properly.
These tips will help protect you and your family from Salmonella:
- Cook food to a safe internal temperature using a digital thermometer.
- Poultry and meat, including hamburgers, should be well cooked, not pink in the middle. If you are served undercooked food in a restaurant, send it back.
- Do not eat raw or undercooked eggs. Raw eggs may be found in homemade foods like hollandaise sauce, Caesar and other salad dressings, tiramisu, ice cream, mayonnaise, cookie dough and frostings.
- Only buy clean and uncracked eggs. Store eggs in their original carton (so you can check the "best before" date) and place them in the coldest section of the fridge, not the door.
- Eat and drink only pasteurized juice, cider, milk and milk products. Mother's milk is the safest food for infants. Breastfeeding prevents salmonellosis and many other health problems.
- When buying and storing groceries, keep meats separate from fruits, vegetables, cooked foods and ready-to-eat foods. If you use reusable grocery bags and bins, make sure to clean them often with hot, soapy water.
- Wash your hands before handling any food. Be sure to wash your hands, cutting boards, counters, knives and other utensils after preparing raw foods.
- Wash raw fruits and vegetables thoroughly with clean, safe running water before you prepare and eat them. Use a brush to scrub produce with firm or rough surfaces, like oranges, cantaloupes, potatoes and carrots.
- Never place cooked food on the unwashed plate that held raw meat, poultry or fish. Wash thermometers in between testing.
- Wash your hands after contact with animal feces (for example, after changing kitty litter or scooping up after your dog).
- Since reptiles can have Salmonella, always wash your hands after handling them. Reptiles, including turtles, are not good pets for children and should not be in the same house as an infant.
- Keep pets away from food storage and preparation areas. Wash your hands well with soap and water after handling pet treats, pet food and pet toys, or after playing with or cleaning up after your pet.
- If you have been diagnosed with salmonellosis or any other gastrointestinal illness, do not prepare food or pour water for other people.
- If you are diagnosed with salmonellosis, be sure that you or your doctor tells the local Public Health Department. If many cases happen at the same time, it may mean that a restaurant or a particular food item has a problem that needs to be corrected.
Also, these safe food practices will reduce your risk of contracting salmonellosis and other foodborne illnesses.
What does the Government do to protect me?
Food safety tip
Pasteurization destroys Salmonella and other harmful bacteria. Try using pasteurized egg products when preparing foods that traditionally contain raw eggs, like eggnog, mayonnaise, salad dressing, ice cream and mousses.
In Canada, several government organizations work together every day to keep your food safe:
- Health Canada makes food safety standards and policies to help minimize the risk of foodborne illnesses.
- The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) enforces these policies and standards and carries out inspections to make sure the food industry meets its food safety responsibilities. The CFIA works with Health Canada to make sure that foodborne illness is detected early and warnings go out to the public quickly.
- The Public Health Agency of Canada studies the incidence and causes of diseases in Canada, conducts outbreak surveillance, and coordinates outbreak response.
The Government of Canada works very hard to protect your health and safety:
- We are carrying out a five-year Food and Consumer Safety Action Plan, to strengthen and modernize Canada's safety system and make sure you can have confidence in the quality and safety of the food, health and consumer products you buy.
- We are investing $75 million more in Canada's food safety system (on top of the $113 million committed in 2008) to hire more inspectors, update lab technology, and improve communication with Canadians.
- We support and participate in public awareness campaigns about safe food practices, like the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education's Fight BAC!® and Be Food Safe programs, which encourage Canadian consumers to think of food safety at every step of the food handling process, from shopping for groceries to re-heating leftovers.
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