Almost 100 people across the U.S. have become sick, and raw chicken is taking the blame. 

By Amanda MacMillan
Updated October 18, 2018

At least 92 people have been sickened so far this year by a drug-resistant form of salmonella bacteria, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced yesterday. The strain responsible for this outbreak has been detected in 29 states, and has sent 21 people to the hospital.

This strain is particularly worrisome because it does not respond to at least 12 antibiotics that are commonly used to treat this type of infection, officials say. To learn more about drug-resistant salmonella, Health spoke with Sam Alcaine, PhD, assistant professor of food safety at Cornell University. Here’s what he says consumers should know.

What is salmonella?

Salmonella is a bacteria that lives in the intestines of mammals, reptiles, and birds. In humans, it can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, along with headache, chills, and other flu-like symptoms.

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“When an animal is sick or when a human is sick, they shed the bacteria into the environment,” says Alcaine. “It makes its way into a food source or water source and is ingested again, continuing the cycle.”

In the intestinal tract, salmonella bacteria attacks the mucosal lining, which is why people sometimes experience blood in their stool. “It’s very unpleasant,” says Alcaine, “but most of the time, if people have a healthy immune system, they get better on their own.”

How is drug-resistant salmonella different?

Sometimes, however, a strain of salmonella is particularly virulent—meaning that it causes more serious symptoms and it doesn’t go away as easily. Salmonella, even “normal” strains, can also be dangerous for people with compromised immune systems, who are not able to fight off the bacteria on their own.

In these cases, doctors typically prescribe antibiotics, such as ciprofloxacin and ceftriaxone, to kill the salmonella bacteria. And this is where the problem with drug-resistant strains comes in.

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“We’ve seen an increase across the board in bacteria—whether it’s salmonella, E. coli, or lots of other bacteria—showing greater resistance to antibiotics,” says Alcaine. Experts say that several factors are contributing to this growing problem, including inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics to patients and overuse of antibiotics in factory farming.

“If someone comes down with one of these MDR [multidrug resistant] salmonellas and that strain hasn’t been tested to see what antibiotics it might be resistant against, a doctor might prescribe the typical drugs that aren’t going to be affective,” says Alcaine. “And that will give the bacteria more time to proceed with the infection and become worse.”

What’s important to know about the current outbreak?

The outbreak reported yesterday by the CDC has been going on since January, and it has sickened 92 people. Those who have become sick range in age from less than 1 to 105, and 69% are female.

The CDC interviewed 54 of the people who became sick, and 89% of them reported eating chicken products (like whole chicken, ground chicken, or chicken parts) that had been purchased raw. One person got sick after a pet ate raw ground chicken pet food, and another reported living with someone who works in a facility that raises or processes chickens.

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So far, no single supplier has been identified as the source this outbreak. Rather, this specific strain has shown up in a variety of different chicken products from different places.

This strain is known to be resistant against 12 different antibiotics, according to the CDC, including the usual first-line treatments for salmonella infection. Fortunately, there are still a few drugs—including azithromycin, amoxicillin-clavulanic acid, and meropenem—that the bacteria appears to be susceptible to.

How can consumers protect themselves?

Poultry is a well-known carrier of salmonella, and it’s commonly the source of salmonella outbreaks in humans, says Alcaine. But that doesn’t mean you have to stop eating chicken altogether.

Consumers can protect themselves from drug-resistant salmonella the same way they protect themselves from regular salmonella: By washing their hands with soap and water after using the bathroom and before and after handling raw meat or poultry, by making sure that cutting boards are washed thoroughly after preparing raw foods, and by cooking chicken to 165 degrees. (High temperatures kill salmonella bacteria.)

People should also take care to prevent contamination of other surfaces in the kitchen when dealing with raw chicken. “When I was growing up, we used to wash raw chicken in the sink before cooking it,” says Alcaine. “We know now that you shouldn’t do that, because splashing water on the carcass is only going to spread bacteria around your kitchen.”

In addition, Alcaine (and the CDC) recommends against feeding dogs or cats food that contains raw chicken. “If they get sick, they’ll start shedding the bacteria and they can make humans sick, too,” he says.

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