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Salmonella one of 250 microbes that can cause foodborne illness

Poultry may carry salmonella that can contaminate the inside of eggs before the shells are formed. Eggs can also become contaminated from the droppings of poultry through the laying process or from the environment. Photo: Shutterstock.com

Poultry may carry salmonella that can contaminate the inside of eggs before the shells are formed. Eggs can also become contaminated from the droppings of poultry through the laying process or from the environment. Photo: Shutterstock.com

Alerts about food make people more conscious of the risks of contamination. Although there are strict regulations along the food chain, mishaps do happen. Therefore, systems are in place to monitor and alert, so any hazards are picked up and action is taken to safeguard public health.

There are over 250 microbes which can cause foodborne illness. One of these is salmonella, a bacterium that can enter the food supply. This bacterium lives in the intestinal tracts of animals and humans and can cause foodborne illness. Illnesses range from mild to very serious infections that can kill vulnerable people. 

Any raw food of animal origin such as meat, poultry, milk and dairy products, eggs and seafood may carry salmonella bacteria. It is essential therefore that people should avoid eating raw or undercooked meat, poultry or eggs, along with unpasteurised dairy products.

Poultry may carry salmonella that can contaminate the inside of eggs before the shells are formed. Eggs can also become contaminated from the droppings of poultry through the laying process or from the environment. In 2003, the EU set up an extended control programme for zoonoses, considering salmonella as a priority.

Enhanced salmonella control programmes in poultry were implemented in all EU Member States. This is based on the concept of an integrated approach to food safety from the farm to the fork to protect consumers from salmonella.

The consumer is advised not to eat foods which have been listed as recalled by the health authorities. In general, important measures for handling eggs need to be adopted. Always cook eggs until both the yolk and white are firm. Egg dishes should be cooked to an internal temperature of 71°C or hotter. Ensure that foods that contain raw or lightly cooked eggs, such as Caesar-salad dressing, mayonnaise and tiramisu, are made only with pasteurised eggs.

Any raw food of animal origin such as meat, poultry, milk and dairy products, eggs and seafood may carry salmonella bacteria

Eat or refrigerate eggs and foods containing eggs promptly after cooking. Do not keep eggs or foods made with eggs warm or at room temperature for more than two hours, or one hour if the temperature is high. Wash hands and items that come into contact with raw eggs, including counter tops, utensils, dishes and cutting board with soap and water.

Thorough cooking at very high temperatures for sufficient time can kill salmonella. However, if there are any suspect foods, it is best not to use.

When alerts are issued by the health authorities on potentially contaminated foods, people should not eat that food, cooked or not. The risk from such foods will be high, so it is best to use the precautionary principle and throw away.

Symptoms of salmonellosis include abdominal cramps, diarrhoea and fever which develop within six to 72 hours after eating contaminated foods. Most people recover in four to seven days and do not need further treatment other than increasing fluid intake. In some situations of severe diarrhoea, the person will need hospitalisation for intravenous fluids.

Some people are more at risk, such as the elderly, infants and those with weakened immune systems, such as HIV/AIDS, diabetes or those on cancer treatment or an organ transplant. These people can get a more serious illness that can even be life-threatening.

Therefore, it is important to contact the family doctor if you have high fever or  diarrhoea for more than three days that is not improving, bloody stools or prolonged vomiting that prevents you from keeping liquids down. Urgent attention is required when there are signs of dehydration, which include passing very little urine, dry mouth and throat and dizziness when standing up.

Dr Charmaine Gauci is Superintendent of Public Health.

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