Pew Charitable Trusts recently reported the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service needs to improve its regulation of Salmonella. The study was specifically focused on recent outbreaks linked to Foster Farms chicken but offered suggestions to improve federal regulations.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted approximately 42,000 cases of salmonellosis are reported in the U.S. every year.
In 2012, West Virginia had 211 cases of confirmed and probable salmonellosis, confirmed meaning lab tests were conducted to identify the disease. That year, Ohio County had fewer than five cases of reported salmonellosis disease.
Howard Gamble, Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department administrator, said Salmonella is mostly associated with a lack of hand washing after handling raw chicken or pork, or, after handling reptiles or baby chickens.
"Salmonella is a bacteria that is found in the intestines of many animals, including birds, mammals and reptiles," Gamble said. "Raw eggs, poultry or meats can be contaminated."
As Salmonella often spreads through contaminated food consumption, safe food handling practices are key to preventing health issues.
After cases are reported, the health department then tries to institute appropriate control measures to prevent additional cases. The average age of incidence or disease is usually under one year of age, but Gamble said salmonellosis is also found in other age groups in West Virginia.
"The disease may not be more prevalent; we may be diagnosing the disease better," Gamble said of the numbers.
Usually beginning six to 72 hours after exposure, symptoms such as diarrhea, stomach cramps, fever and, possibly, bloody stool, can last 48 to 72 hours. Gamble said Salmonella can last in the intestines for weeks to months as well as lead to the infection of other people.
"Salmonella is in our environment, and we won't be able to totally control the disease," Gamble said.
However, he emphasized people can take simple steps, such as washing hands, thoroughly cooking foods, practicing safe food handling, not consuming raw or partially cooked eggs and drinking only pasteurized milk to prevent the disease.
"The most important thing we can do to avoid a potential contact is to wash our hands," Gamble said.
Noting the months usually producing the most cases of salmonellosis are June, July and August, Gamble attributed the rise during that time to people tending "to eat out more, grill out more and have more interaction with food that could be prepared incorrectly."
As Consumer Reports also found high levels of bacteria, including some Salmonella, in its testing, which included chicken breasts labeled "no antibiotics" and "organic," Gamble reminded consumers not to misconceive labeling.
"Just because a food label has the words 'organic' or 'antibiotic-free' does not mean it will not have a bacteria such as Salmonella," he said.