Salmonella: Frequently Asked Questions

Get Answers to Questions About the Salmonella Outbreak Tied to Mexican Jalapeno Peppers

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on July 28, 2008

Health officials are investigating the source of the SalmonellaSaintpaul outbreak. While tomatoes were the No. 1 suspect when the outbreak began, the FDA announced on July 17, 2008, that all tomatoes -- from every source -- are safe to eat.

The FDA advises consumers to avoid raw jalapeno and serrano peppers -- and foods that contains them -- from Mexico until further notice.

Peppers grown the in U.S. are no longer on the FDA's warning list. Commercially canned, pickled, and cooked jalapeno and serrano peppers from any and all locations are fine to eat and aren't linked to the salmonella outbreak.

Here are 14 questions and answers about salmonella, symptoms of salmonella infection, and how to avoid salmonella.

What is salmonella?

Salmonella are bacteria that can live in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals. There are many strains of salmonella; the tomato outbreak involves an uncommon strain called Salmonella Saintpaul.

What are symptoms of salmonella infection?

Salmonella infection (salmonellosis) can cause diarrhea (which may be bloody), fever, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Symptoms typically start 12-72 hours after infection.

Who's at risk?

Anyone can get salmonella. Most cases aren't severe. Serious and potentially fatal cases are more likely in young children, frail or elderly people, and people with weak immune systems. Those cases can happen when salmonella infection spreads from the intestines to the blood and other parts of the body.

For the latest news on the number of cases in the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak, visit the CDC's web site.

Will rinsing fruits and vegetables get rid of salmonella?

Rinsing tainted fruits and vegetables probably won't get rid of salmonella, according to the FDA. In general, it's important to handle foods safely. That generally means rinsing raw, whole fruits and vegetables under running water and, if you choose, scrubbing them with a small vegetable brush to remove surface dirt. It also means that when you cook foods, you cook them thoroughly.

What if I wash fruits and vegetables with a detergent, too?

The FDA doesn't recommend using any kind of detergent to wash fresh produce, because "it is not yet known if their residues are harmful to humans," states the FDA's web site.

Does cooking kill salmonella?

Thorough cooking can kill salmonella. But when health officials warn people not to eat potentially contaminated food, or when a food is recalled because of salmonella risk, that means don't eat that food, cooked or not, rinsed or not. The stakes are too high.

Besides tomatoes and peppers, what other foods may contain salmonella?

Any raw food of animal origin -- such as meat, poultry, milk and dairy products, eggs, and seafood -- and some fruits and vegetables may carry salmonella bacteria, states the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection web site, adding that salmonella bacteria can contaminate other foods that come in contact with raw meat and poultry. That's why thorough cooking and cleanliness are so important in the kitchen.

What can I do to prevent salmonella infection?

It boils down to food safety. That starts on the farm and goes all the way to your kitchen. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has this advice:

  • Consider using paper towels to clean kitchen surfaces. If you use cloth towels, wash them often in the hot cycle of your washing machine.
  • Separate raw meat, poultry, and seafood from other foods in your grocery shopping cart and in your refrigerator.
  • If possible, use one cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for raw meat, poultry, and seafood.
  • Always wash cutting boards, dishes, countertops, and utensils with hot soapy water after they come in contact with raw meat, poultry, and seafood.
  • Never place cooked food on a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry, or seafood.
  • Cook foods thoroughly and refrigerate them promptly.
  • Don't thaw foods at room temperature.
  • Use a clean food thermometer to check the internal temperature of meat, poultry, casseroles, and other foods.

How does salmonella spread?

Salmonella can pass from human or animal feces to soil, fruits, vegetables, water, or other surfaces. People usually get salmonella by eating contaminated foods. However, salmonella can also spread through contact with pet feces or by handling contaminated pet food.

Reptiles are particularly likely to harbor salmonella bacteria, and chicks and ducklings can carry them too, notes the CDC. The U.S. government bans the sale of small pet turtles because of salmonella risk.

How common is salmonella infection?

Salmonella is commonly found in birds, in reptiles, in chickens, and in humans. There are more than 2,000 types of salmonella.

Every year, the CDC gets reports of about 40,000 cases of salmonella illnesses. The actual number of cases may be higher because not all cases get reported to the CDC. In fact, the CDC estimates that for every reported case, 38 cases go unreported.

An estimated 400 people per year die of acute salmonella infection, according to the CDC.

But the Salmonella Saintpaul strain is rare in humans. Last year, there were 400 reported cases. And last year there were only 25 cases of infection with the specific Saintpaul subtype causing the current outbreak.

Are salmonella cases on the rise?

Not according to the CDC's preliminary food safety data for 2007, which show no significant change from 2004-2007 in the incidence of salmonella infection reported to the CDC. But the salmonella incidence rate is more than twice as high as the government's goal for 2010, so the CDC says "new approaches" are needed to curb salmonella infection.

How is salmonella infection diagnosed?

By a stool test.

How is salmonella infection treated?

Most people don't require treatment other than drinking plenty of fluids. People with severe diarrhea may require rehydration with intravenous fluids. Antibiotics are usually not used unless the salmonella infection has spread beyond the intestines.

What about other outbreaks of food poisoning?

The Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak is the major national food safety issue at the moment. Other outbreaks you probably heard about in recent years include the 2006 E. coli outbreak in fresh spinach, the 2007 salmonella outbreak in Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter, the 2007 Veggie Booty recall because of salmonella risk, the 2007 recall of certain Banquet or generic store-brand turkey or chicken pot pies linked to a salmonella outbreak, and the 2007 recall by Topps Meat Co. of more than 21 million pounds of frozen ground beef products because of E. coli risk.