How to Prevent Salmonella

Taking steps to prevent getting a salmonella infection can save you and your family from being one of the 1.2 million people in the United States who contract this illness each year. The bacteria responsible for salmonella is spread by contaminated food and by handling animals such as pet turtles that carry it in their feces. Avoid raw or undercooked meat and eggs and ensure raw meat is handled separately from other foods when preparing a meal.

Preventing infection is especially important for those most at risk of a severe illness, including young children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems. While most people get diarrhea that runs its course in a few days, approximately 450 people die every year from acute salmonellosis. There is no vaccine for salmonella and you can catch the illness multiple times, so it is important to avoid contact with the bacteria.

Transmission

Salmonellosis is an illness that includes diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps. The bacteria are spread in the feces. Some people are healthy but are carriers of the bacteria. Use these tips so you don't give salmonella to others or get it from them:

  • Always wash your hands thoroughly after using the toilet, changing diapers, and before preparing food.
  • A person who has salmonellosis should not prepare food or pour water for others until they have had no symptoms for 48 hours.
  • A person who has salmonellosis should not return to work, child care, or school until they have had no symptoms for 48 hours.
  • Don't go swimming if you have had diarrhea in the past 24 hours.

Food Preparation and Handling

There are many food handling practices that are aimed at preventing salmonella infection from food. These practices are important while eating, cooking at home, and preparing food in restaurants.

Clean

  • Wash your hands before and after you handle food items.
  • Wash kitchen work surfaces and utensils with soap and water after preparing each food item.
  • It is better to use disposable paper towels to clean kitchen surfaces than sponges or cloth towels. If you use cloth towels, they should be washed in hot water in a washing machine after each use.
  • Thoroughly wash produce before consuming.
  • Peel and discard outer leaves or rinds of fruits and vegetables.
  • Scrub hearty vegetables, such as potatoes and carrots, if you want to eat the skin.

Separate

  • When shopping, keep raw meat, poultry, and seafood separate from the other items. Store them separately in the refrigerator.
  • After contact with raw meat or poultry, wash hands, kitchen work surfaces, utensils, plates, bowls, etc. with soap and water immediately. It is especially important that you don't use unwashed utensils and other items for food that will be served uncooked or for the meat once it has been cooked. 
  • It is best to have separate cutting boards designated for raw meat and for produce as cleaning may not remove all of the bacteria.
  • Don't work with raw poultry or meat and handle an infant (e.g., feed, change diaper) at the same time.

Cook

  • Cook poultry, ground beef, and eggs thoroughly before eating. Do not eat or drink foods containing raw eggs or raw unpasteurized milk. Raw eggs may be unrecognized in some foods such as homemade hollandaise sauce, homemade salad dressings, tiramisu, homemade ice cream, homemade mayonnaise, cookie dough, eggnog, and frostings.
  • If you are served undercooked meat, poultry or eggs in a restaurant, don't hesitate to send it back to the kitchen for further cooking. Poultry and meat, including hamburgers, should be well-cooked, not pink in the middle.

Chill

  • Keep refrigerators clean and cold (40 F or below for refrigerators).
  • Cover and refrigerate produce you have cut.
  • Read and follow label instructions such as "Keep Refrigerated" or "Use By" (a certain date).
  • Keep prepared fruit salads or other cut produce items in the refrigerator until just before serving. Discard cut produce items if they have been out of the refrigerator for more than four hours.

General

  • Mother's milk is the safest food for young infants. Breastfeeding prevents salmonellosis and many other health problems. Wash your hands before breastfeeding your child.
  • Don't drink untreated water that could be contaminated by animal waste.

Animal and Pet Contact

While animals may transmit salmonella to anyone, there are groups who are at higher risk and should avoid any contact with animals that commonly carry the bacteria. These groups include infants, children age 5 and younger, adults over age 65, and people with decreased immune function (HIV/AIDS, chemotherapy, organ transplant recipients).

The highest-risk animals are reptiles (turtles, iguanas, other lizards, snakes), amphibians (frogs, salamanders), and live poultry (chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys).

Other animals that may transmit salmonella include pet birds, rodents (hamsters, guinea pigs, rats, mice), hedgehogs, farm animals, dogs, cats, and horses. The bacteria are primarily found in their feces, but their fur, feathers, bedding, toys, food, feeders, cages, or enclosures will also harbor the germs. These animals can be completely healthy and still carry the bacteria.

Use these tips to reduce your risk and protect people in higher-risk groups:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water after any contact with animals, their enclosures, or their feces. While this applies to any animal or pet, it is especially a concern with reptiles, amphibians, or birds.
  • People in high-risk groups should avoid direct or even indirect contact with reptiles, amphibians, and live poultry. These animals should not be kept as pets in households that have members in the high-risk groups, or at daycare facilities, elder care facilities, or medical facilities.
  • Don't allow high-risk animals into areas where you commonly eat or drink. Don't eat, drink, or smoke while around those animals.
  • Petting zoos or farm visits are best reserved for children over age 5, with supervision.
  • Adults in high-risk groups should not clean any pet items or animal waste without wearing disposable gloves. Children age 5 and under should not be given such tasks.
  • When washing pets or their items, try to do so outdoors. Do not discard the water in a sink that is used for food preparation. Use bleach to disinfect any sink, tub, or toilet afterward.
  • If your child is age 5 or younger, supervise the child around animals. Don't allow contact with your child's face or kissing. Assist your child in handwashing after handling an animal.

Backyard Farming

As keeping chickens and enjoying homegrown eggs is popular, it is important to understand the risks of salmonella from these activities. You should only buy live poultry or chicks from hatcheries certified by the USDA National Poultry Improvement Plan (USDA NPIP). It's best not to get your poultry from show breeders or other backyard farmers.

Use these tips to avoid getting salmonella:

  • Clean your coop regularly, wearing gloves and shoe protectors or shoes you only use in the coop.
  • Change the food and water daily.
  • Wash your hands after handling a chicken or collecting eggs and do so either outdoors or using a sink that isn't used for food preparation.
  • Clean feeding bowls and other items outdoors or in a sink not used for food preparation, disinfecting it with bleach.
  • Don't eat, drink, or smoke around your birds.
  • Keep your birds out of the house and away from areas, including outdoor patios, where you prepare or eat food.
  • Don't allow children under age 5 around your birds and supervise other children and adults so they handle the birds safely.
  • If any bird is sick, separate it from the rest of the birds and contact your veterinarian.
  • Ensure your birds get all recommended vaccines.
  • If you use chicken manure as garden compost, it must be cured for at least 45 days before use.

Use these tips for homegrown egg safety:

  • Collect the eggs each morning and afternoon.
  • Washing eggs after collection isn't recommended as the Center for Disease Control (CDC) says that washing in cold water can pull bacteria into the eggs. Clean them outdoors with a brush or cloth.
  • Discard cracked or dirty eggs.
  • Refrigerate eggs in two hours or less.
  • If you are selling your eggs, follow all local regulations and licensing requirements.
  • When eating homegrown eggs, cook them thoroughly and don't consume raw eggs.

Identifying Outbreaks

Public health departments and the CDC require medical facilities to report cases of salmonellosis so they can identify and track outbreaks. Clinical laboratories send isolates of Salmonella to public health laboratories so the specific type can be determined and compared with other Salmonella in the community. If many cases occur at the same time, it may mean that a restaurant, food, or water supply has a problem which needs correction by the public health department. While many people don't seek medical care for a bout of salmonellosis that runs a typical course, those who do will help with this monitoring for outbreaks.

Information on outbreaks can be seen on the CDC site. Examples of recent outbreaks include those due to shell eggs, coconut, chicken salad, raw sprouts, kratom, pet guinea pigs, and pet turtles. You can drill down to see the specifics for outbreaks.

If you hear any news reports of recalls of food due to concern for salmonella or foodborne illnesses, check to see whether you have bought the recalled products. Do not consume them.

View Article Sources
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  • Salmonella. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/
  • Salmonella Infection. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/diseases/salmonella.html.
  • Salmonella Questions and Answers. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/foodborne-illness-and-disease/salmonella-questions-and-answers.
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