Raw chicken, the culprit behind a new salmonella outbreak

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has announced another widespread salmonella outbreak—this time in raw chicken products.

More On Salmonella

There have been 14 multi-state salmonella outbreaks already in 2018, including ground beef, melon, eggs, Honey Smacks cereal, and kosher chicken. What’s particularly concerning about this latest food poisoning alert is that the strain of salmonella involved is resistant to multiple types of antibiotic drugs, making it more difficult to treat.

So far, 92 people in 29 states have gotten sick after eating contaminated chicken, and 22 have been hospitalized. The states where illnesses have been reported are: Alabama, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.

The first illness was reported in January 2018, and the CDC started investigating in May. Nevertheless, there are still many unanswered questions about the source and cause of the outbreak.

“This has been a difficult investigation,” says Colin Basler, D.V.M., M.P.H., a veterinary epidemiologist with the CDC who is part of the investigatory team. “We’ve isolated the bacteria to raw chicken products from 58 different slaughter facilities, but besides that we have not been able to pinpoint a brand or a purchase location, or even a particular type of product.”

Delayed Announcement

Many types of raw chicken have been connected to this outbreak, including whole chicken, chicken parts, ground chicken and even some raw ground-chicken pet food that one victim fed to his dog. Another victim became sick after coming into contact with someone who raises or processes chicken for a living.

Basler says the salmonella contamination in this outbreak likely happened “upstream” from the slaughtering facilities, meaning a farm or other facility where chickens are raised. As of now, no specific facility has been pinpointed—and it appears unlikely any will be found soon, he says. The last reported illness was on September 19, though the CDC anticipates logging more cases in coming weeks.

The CDC was waiting to release information until it could be more specific in its advice to consumers, according to Basler. But because new cases kept coming in—and because contaminated chicken could still be on supermarket shelves now—the agency decided it needed to remind the public of safe handling and cooking practices.

So the chicken, even if it's contaminated, can still be eaten as long as it's handled and cooked properly. 

“Raw meat products always present some degree of risk,” Basler says. “We want to make sure people are washing their hands and preparation surfaces especially carefully, and always cooking their chicken to 165 degrees.”

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), in a release, was strongly critical of the CDC and the Department of Agriculture, saying, in part: “Five years ago to the day, I wrote a letter with my former colleague, the late Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, to CDC and USDA regarding their mismanaged investigation and lack of action in response to an antibiotic-resistant strain of Salmonella that contaminated chicken products across the country.

"Now, five years later, CDC has informed the public of another outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella in chicken that has been going on since January. The federal government and the poultry industry need to take this problem seriously. Déjà vu is not an acceptable policy for dealing with food safety.”

A Resistant Strain

This particular strain of salmonella, Salmonella infantis, can be quite serious, even deadly, and the fact that this strain is resistant to several antibiotics—meaning that the drugs won’t kill the bacteria—is very worrisome, according to Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumer Reports.

"Consumer Reports has long urged USDA to classify strains of salmonella like this one, that make people sick and are multiple drug resistant, as 'adulterants,'" she says.  "Currently, it is not illegal for this kind of pathogen to be in chicken.  If classified as an adulterant, it would be."

At least 2 million Americans contract an antibiotic-resistant infection every year, and 23,000 die, according to the CDC. CR’s calculations show that about 20 percent of these infections are linked to food. A recent Consumer Reports survey also found that 1 in 3 Americans either experienced an antibiotic-resistant infection or knew someone who had.  

Most cases of salmonella infection last 4 to 7 days and do not require treatment. But if a case is serious enough, antibiotics may be called for. In those cases, the CDC cautions health care providers that only certain antibiotics are likely to be effective.


Staying Safe

Anyone can become ill from eating undercooked chicken, but those who are more vulnerable to becoming seriously ill must be especially careful. These include infants and children, pregnant women, the elderly, and the immunocompromised.

“We know that it is not unusual for raw chicken to be contaminated with salmonella,” says Halloran. “But when you have a dangerous strain like this, sickening so many people, it’s especially important to follow proper safety procedures.”

Consumer Reports will update this story as new information becomes available. In the meantime, take these precautions:

  • Wash your hands. Salmonella infections can easily spread from one person to another if hands have germs on them. Vigorously wash hands with soap and water, before and after preparing or eating raw chicken or other meat.

  • Cook raw chicken thoroughly. Chicken breasts, whole chickens, and ground poultry, including chicken burgers and chicken sausage, should always be cooked to an internal temperature of 165° F. Use a meat thermometer to check, inserting it into the thickest part of the meat.

  • Don’t spread germs from raw chicken around food preparation areas. Washing raw poultry or other meats before cooking is not recommended, as germs can easily spread to other foods and kitchen surfaces. Thoroughly wash counters, cutting boards, and utensils with warm, soapy water after they touch raw chicken. Use a separate cutting board for raw chicken and other raw meats and produce.

  • Avoid feeding pets raw food diets. According to the CDC, this practice makes it more likely that you or your pet will get sick from bacterial contamination.

  • Know the symptoms. Salmonella typically causes diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps 12 to 72 hours after being exposed to the bacteria. If you have a high fever, bloody diarrhea, or severe vomiting, or if diarrhea lasts longer than three days, you should contact your doctor. This strain of salmonella has also caused urinary tract infections in some patients.