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An outbreak of salmonella originating from one of the biggest producers of kosher chicken in the United States, Empire Kosher in New York, has left 17 people ill and one dead. Cases were reported in four US states: New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland. Eight people were sick enough to be sent to the hospital. Here’s what you need to know about the Salmonella Kosher Chicken Outbreak.
As of this writing, there’s no recall in effect for products that are linked to the salmonella outbreak. Nor have regulators seen fit to enjoin Empire Kosher from operating until they’ve gotten their act together. Instead, they’ve opted to release a public health alert notifying consumers of a rash of cases of salmonella that appear to be associated with Empire Kosher and warning that tainted product might still be sitting in their freezer.
The Food Safety and Inspection Service issued the public health alert on August 24th notifying the public of the outbreak. The Empire Kosher products suspected of possible salmonella contamination were sold across the mid-Atlantic coast and the midwestern United States between September of 2017 and June of 2018.
That same stretch – nine months – is also span of time during which the 17 known cases of salmonella occurred. The first started on September 25th, and the last was registered on June 4th. The youngest person infected was an infant less than a year old, and the oldest was 76. Men and women both were affected by the outbreak in roughly equal number.
The authorities conducted 14 interviews through the course of their investigation. Everyone that they spoke to reported eating chicken products before falling ill. Nine people reported what kind of chicken they had eaten during their interviews; of the nine, seven identified Empire Kosher as the brand that they’d eaten before they’d fallen ill.
Samples of the offending bacteria were taken from victims. Investigators took these samples to the lab, where they were able to precisely identify the strain of salmonella in question through genetic fingerprints. They didn’t literally take the bacteria’s fingers, of course — salmonella is a single-celled organism without hands or fingers. Instead, they employed a method called pulsed-gel electrophoresis to establish a broad picture of the DNA in question, before following up with another method called whole genome sequencing to lend that broad picture more detail.
The CDC coordinates a genetic database that’s used by public health regulators and laboratories across the country. They fed the lab results for the offending salmonella DNA into that database to see if they could identify where it came from or identify other cases that didn’t otherwise seem to be related but shared a genetic profile.
Authorities identified samples of salmonella that were a genetic match for the strain implicated in the outbreak. Those matching samples came from two facilities that processed raw chicken during routine compliance inspections of their processing and slaughtering facilities. They were matched to the outbreak strain through the aforementioned national genetic database.
One of the plants is a facility which processes Empire Kosher. Based on this piece of information, plus the fact that seven of the victims had reported consuming Empire Kosher before they got sick, the CDC decided that there was likely a connection between Empire Kosher and the link of salmonella illnesses that were genetically related to one another. That prompted federal authorities to issue their public health alert.
Salmonella bacteria on food can cause salmonellosis in the body. Symptoms include diarrhea, fever, nausea, and abdominal pain. The illness usually sets in 12 – 72 hours after exposure and typically lasts between four and six days.
For healthy adults, infection with salmonella is an unpleasant event that rarely poses a serious threat. For the very young, the very old, and the immunocompromised, infection with salmonella bacteria can be a different story. What might start off as a routine case of food poisoning can quickly spread through the body and the blood, causing severe illnesses. Sometimes, as was the case with the deceased victim in this outbreak, salmonellosis can prove fatal.
There are several steps that you can take to reduce the likelihood of contracting salmonella. The first is to maintain a sterile environment whenever you’re handling or preparing raw meat. Make sure that all the counters, utensils, and cookware that you’re using have been properly disinfected before you use them – wash them in hot soapy water or wipe them down with household cleaning products beforehand to reduce the number of bacteria.
The same principle applies to your hands: before getting down to cooking, be sure to wash them for at least 20 seconds in hot, soapy, water. There’s no right way to wash your hands, and there’s several effective strategies to get the friction and coverage you need to ditch bacteria – I like to rub mine together like a dastardly fellow from an old TV show who’s just seen something he wants. There are several wrong ways, however: chiefly, any method that neglects the spaces between your fingers and the backs of your hands. It’s important to wash them as well, as they can harbor bacteria that’ll spread afterwards if you don’t cover them.
Be sure to dry your hands, utensils, cookware, and counters after disinfecting them; the same hot, soapy water that’s so effective at getting rid of bacteria can lead to moist, warm places where bacteria are just as apt to breed. Prompt attention to drying will deny them this opportunity.
Finally, if you’re preparing chicken, we urge you to use a meat thermometer to make sure that the the chicken reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees. Similarly, if you’re storing leftovers after the fact, keep them below 40 degrees. Salmonella and similar pathogens can’t effectively multiply above or below these extremes; for temperatures in between, however, the bacteria have no problem spreading. Remember to stay vigilant!
By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)