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Honey Smacks Outbreak is Over

Posted in Outbreaks & Recalls,Salmonella on October 1, 2018

CDC closed the investigation for Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal outbreak manufactured by Battle Creek, Michigan-based Kellogg Co. The outbreak which sickened 135 people from 36 states was one of the worst outbreaks caused by a pathogen found in dry food product. There were 35 hospitalizations but no deaths were reported. On June 14, 2018, the Kellogg company recalled Honey Smacks cereal products.

Illnesses started from March 3, 2018 and lasted until August 29, 2018. Median age of those infected with Salmonella was 57. 69% of the sickened individuals were female. 84 people reported eating Kellogg’s Honey Smack cereal. The investigators collected a cereal box from several retail locations. One of them collected from California matched the strain of Salmonella Mbandaka found in ill people.

According to the CDC:

“Health officials in several states collected Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal from retail locations and ill people’s homes for testing. Laboratory testing identified the outbreak strain of Salmonella Mbandaka in a sample of unopened Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal collected from a retail location in California. Laboratory testing also identified the outbreak strain in samples of leftover Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal collected from the homes of ill people in Montana, New York, and Utah. WGS showed that Salmonella bacteria isolated from sick people and the cereal were closely related genetically. This result provides more evidence that people in this outbreak got sick from eating Kellogg’s Honey Smacks.”

Case Count Map:

New York: 16; Pennsylvania: 12; California: 11; Massachusetts: 9; Virginia: 5; North Carolina: 5; Connecticut: 4; Indiana: 4; Michigan: 4; West Virginia: 4; Arizona: 3; Florida: 3; Kentucky: 3; Louisiana: 3; Alabama: 2; Colorado: 2; Georgia: 2; Maryland: 2; Mississippi: 2; Montana: 2; New Hampshire: 2; Oklahoma: 2; Oregon: 2; Rhode Island: 2; Wisconsin: 2; Delaware: 1; Illinois: 1; Maine: 1; Minnesota: 1.

The cereal is marked with ‘best if used by’ date as June 14, 2019. Throw the cereal away if you have them at your home. It doesn’t matter if you have eaten them and they didn’t cause any illness. They should still be discarded.

But how did Salmonella end up in my breakfast cereal?

Salmonella is a type of bacteria that has many different kinds of strains. They are usually found in the intestines of animals. Salmonella is one of the most common causes of foodborne illnesses in the country. They are commonly associated with meat and dairy products. But in recent times, they have found a way into dry foods too.

Sadly, it is not only salmonella that has found its way into dry foods. E.Coli – another bacteria that is common in food poisoning cases in US – has also been found in dry foods in some outbreaks.

“It can get into food through ingredients, and through processing environments”, says Hendrik Den Bakker, Ph,D., a professor at the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety. Bacteria and harmful pathogens like these can enter the food during processing through contaminated machinery. The machinery can get tainted when the cleaning is not done properly or can be introduced by people.

The pathogens gets shed into the feces of the people who are suffering from food poisoning. When they don’t wash their hands properly, the bacteria can get transferred from their hands to machinery and contaminate any batch of food that goes through it. Clearly, foods safety sites emphasize on the simple-yet-important tip of hand washing for a reason.

These are the basics, though. Many bacterial strains including that of Salmonella have become nasty. They have been able to adapt to different conditions including dry environment. When food pathogens are exposed to one kind of stress, they are able to resist other stresses. So, if salmonella is exposed to dry environment, it will start resisting heat treatment with time.

There have been increasing cases of salmonella being found in contaminated food since the last decade, added Den Bakker. The contamination has been found in imported spices, dog food and dry pet foods. This one is also not the first outbreak caused by Salmonella in cereal. In 2008, rice and wheat puff cereals made by Malt-O-Meal was implicated in an outbreak that sickened 28 people in 15 states. Salmonella strain was found in the Minnesota plant that packaged cereal.

Den Bakker also added that even though we are witnessing more cases related to dry food, it could be because of the advances in tracking and identifying food pathogens. We have become more alert. We are able to detect outbreak during early stages. Thanks to genome sequencing, we are also able to establish a link between cases and conduct epidemiological research, explains Prof. Den Bakker.

Having said that, detecting dry food contamination means that consumers would have to use new strategies so as to protect themselves against food poisoning. Ready-to-eat foods are meant to be eaten directly, so heat can’t kill any harmful microbes left.

About Salmonella

Salmonella is one of the common causes of food-borne illnesses in the US. It causes about 1.2 million illnesses in US each year with 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths. The complications and deaths are more in high-risk populations like elderly, children, pregnant women and those with compromised immune system. The diseases affects the intestine of the infected individuals and causes debilitating diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal cramps. The symptoms can last from 4-7 days. Incubation period of the bacteria is around 8-72 hours.

Most people will recover without any treatment. Have more fluids and eat something light. Do consult a doctor because you might need antibiotics if the conditions worsens. Some complications that might occur are dehydration, bacteremia (when bacteria infects the bloodstream) and reactive arthritis. Antibiotic resistance in many strains of the bacteria has made treatment a bit more complicated especially for high-risk individuals.

Since the bacteria lives inside the intestines of the animals, it is quite easy for it to get into animal products during butchering process. Even raw eggs can get infected by salmonella, because some chickens give eggs that contain salmonella in them. Fresh produce can get infected by salmonella through cross-contamination like water contaminated with feces running through the field or contaminated machinery used in processing of produce.

The best way to protect yourself is to wash your hands thoroughly, keep raw meat separate from fresh produce, safely store perishable foods, properly cook your foods and look out for recalls.

By: Pooja Sharma, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)