A total of 130 people have now fallen ill from a salmonella outbreak that led to the recall of Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal in June. While no deaths have been reported, 34 people have been hospitalized with salmonellosis, the name for the infection from the bacteria. Just a month before the recall, 35 cases of salmonellosis and 11 hospitalizations were reported in a salmonella outbreak tied to eggs.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is warning people not to eat any Honey Smacks and for retailers to stop selling the cereal. Similarly in May, the CDC warned consumers not to eat any eggs coming from Indiana-based Rose Acre Farms’ Hyde County facility in North Carolina.
Here’s what you need to know about salmonella to stay safe during this and future outbreaks.
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What is salmonella?
Salmonella is actually relatively common: There are about 1.2 million cases a year, and a million of those cases are caused by food, according to the CDC. Along with salmonella’s fellow bacterial friends E. coli and listeria, it’s one of the causes of what most of us would call food poisoning.
There are a number of different types of bacteria in the salmonella family, explains food safety specialist Argyris Magoulas, who is affiliated with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Two types—Salmonella Enteritidis and Salmonella Typhimurium—are the most common in the U.S.
The bacteria live in human and animal intestines and make people sick when we eat foods contaminated with salmonella-tainted feces (gross, we know). Raw meat, poultry, and seafood may come in contact with fecal matter during butchering or harvesting; fruits and veggies run the risk of being washed in contaminated water. If chickens are infected, they can lay eggs that contain salmonella bacteria, according to the Mayo Clinic. And if any equipment involved in making and packaging food is contaminated–not to mention if employees have bacteria on their hands–salmonella can get into processed foods like cereal, too, according to FoodSafety.gov. (In fact, it’s not even the first salmonella outbreak linked to cereal; 209 cases were reported in 1998.)
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Salmonella symptoms to watch for
The three major symptoms of salmonella are seriously unpleasant: diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps. The symptoms usually crop up anywhere from 12 to 72 hours after a person is infected with the bacteria, and they usually last about four to seven days. Luckily, most people recover without any treatment, according to the FDA.
But in other cases, the diarrhea can be severe, leading to dehydration and hospitalization. When symptoms are that bad, a person runs the risk of the infection spreading to the blood and then other body parts, which is when salmonella can become life-threatening without antibiotics. Kids, older folks, and people with immune systems already weakened by other medical conditions or treatments are more likely to have severe salmonella infections, the FDA adds.
Unfortunately, if your food is contaminated with salmonella, you’re probably not going to know it ahead of time. “It does not usually affect the taste, smell, or appearance of food,” Magoulas says. (Of course, any food that looks or smells off probably also isn’t something you want to eat.)
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How to stay safe
If you haven’t yet, go check your cereal stash and toss any Honey Smacks (and don’t buy any more). “Even if some of the cereal has been eaten and no one got sick, throw the rest of it away or return it for a refund,” the CDC advises.
Hopefully, your morning meal isn’t a cause of concern, or you already threw away any suspicious cereal boxes.
In the recent outbreak concerning eggs, experts warned that the protein-rich breakfast staples have been blamed for salmonella outbreaks before. In fact, eggs earned a spot on our list of the foods most likely to make you sick.
“Is salmonella in every shell egg? No. But could it be? Yes. You don’t want to gamble,” Magoulas says. To play it safe, always cook eggs until they’re firm or cook egg dishes at 160 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s especially important for those at-risk younger, older, or immunocompromised folks, he adds. “They can get much [sicker] than a person who is healthier.”
In addition to scrambling or hard-cooking your eggs instead of opting for sunny-side up, you might also want to skip the Hollandaise and the raw cookie batter, since both contain raw eggs. Magoulas adds that you can buy pasteurized egg products instead of the shelled variety to use in dishes that call for raw or undercooked eggs, since these products have been heated to a temperature that kills bacteria but doesn’t cook an egg.
As always, make sure to wash up carefully after handling raw eggs, meat, and poultry. Scrub your hands before and after food prep, Magoulas says, and clean cutting boards and countertops diligently.
And please don’t think your stomach of steel is above a recall. “The recommendation is always to return it or discard it—you might even get a refund,” Magoulas says.