5 Surprising Ways You Can Get Food Poisoning

There are many sources of dangerous bacteria, and they might not be anywhere near your food

chickens in backyard of home iStock-454365759

Salmonella in elderberries. E. coli in romaine lettuce, Listeria monocytogenes in deli meat. It’s unfortunate, but we’ve become all too familiar with reports of foods being contaminated with bacteria that can make you ill.

What’s not as well known is that you don’t have to actually eat contaminated food to become infected with these bacteria. “When we talk about food poisoning, there are certain microbes or germs that cause illness, but that doesn’t mean you can only get them through foods,” says Martin Wiedmann, DVM, PhD, the Gellert Family Professor in Food Safety at Cornell University’s Institute for Food Safety in Geneva, N.Y. “You can get Salmonella from undercooked chicken, for example, but also through direct contact with animals.” And while it seems like a long shot, these unconventional vectors are causing an increasing number of foodborne outbreaks.

“A lot of these bacteria that we associate with foodborne outbreaks live in the intestinal tracts of different animals—and also humans,” says Karin Allen, PhD, an associate professor of food science at Utah State University in Logan. No matter how they get there, if the bacteria is transferred to your mouth, it’s the same as when food is the vehicle, she explains. Your defense is also the same: good hygiene.

Here’s a look at some of the surprising sources of food-related illness, most of which will (or should) never come close to your plate.

Backyard Chickens

Whether it’s to have a steady supply of fresh eggs or simply to get in touch with nature, raising chickens or ducks has become an increasingly common hobby, and one that especially took off during the coronavirus pandemic. With this, there has been a rise in salmonella infections, not from eating the birds but from handling them.

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In 2020 alone, there were 17 multistate outbreaks related to backyard poultry, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People in all 50 states became ill, with a total of 1,722 cases reported. The CDC says that “the number of illnesses reported this year was higher than the number reported during any of the past years’ outbreaks linked to backyard flocks.”

Over 20 percent of the illnesses occurred in children younger than 5. “It often happens around Easter when people are giving chicks to their kids as pets,” Wiedmann says.

Bacteria is spread from live chickens (as well as turkeys, ducks, and geese) via their feces. The birds will walk through it and potentially peck in it, and because they like to roll in dirt, it may also be on their feathers and beaks.

For this reason, you shouldn’t let them roam around the house (especially not in the kitchen) or get too close: The CDC warns consumers against kissing or snuggling their friendly fowl. Canoodling with chickens is more common than you might think: In a 2016 study, CDC researchers found that 13 percent of those who became ill after handling poultry reported kissing the birds.

If you want to raise your own chickens, geese, or ducks, the CDC has advice for doing so in a way that will keep you and the birds healthy.

Hedgehogs

A popular pet trend due to their unique and adorable appearance, hedgehogs, like many other animals, often harbor salmonella in their intestinal tract. It comes out in their feces, and the animals’ coat and feet can pick up the bacteria, tracking it everywhere they go. When you handle the hedgehog or things it touches, it’s just a short trip to your mouth. In November, the CDC and Canadian health officials announced an outbreak of Salmonella typhimurium linked to hedgehogs. More than 80 people in both countries were sickened. There was an outbreak in 2019 as well. The CDC says that among the 54 Americans in 23 states who were sickened, 84 percent indicated that they’d touched a hedgehog.

Pet Turtles

In a 2020 outbreak, 35 people in nine states became ill with Salmonella typhimurium from pet turtles, and Salmonella Oranienburg from turtles was the culprit in a 2019 outbreak that sickened 26 people in 14 states. In the 2020 outbreak, two-thirds of the victims were children younger than 12.

The seemingly harmless reptiles can spread bacteria from their feces onto their shell and throughout their habitat. They are such reliable carriers of the bacteria that the Food and Drug Administration prohibits the sale of turtles with shells smaller than 4 inches because young children are apt to put them in their mouths. Reptiles such as iguanas and bearded dragons can also harbor salmonella.

Raw Pet Food

Giving your dog or cat raw food (vs. canned or kibble) is a controversial practice among pet owners and veterinarians. “Lower-quality meats often go into pet food, and the rate of bacterial contamination is often higher,” says Tamara Gull, PhD, DVM, an associate clinical professor in the department of veterinary pathobiology at the University of Missouri in Columbia. “Without cooking, the bacteria stay alive in raw food, and people aren’t great at disinfecting countertops, knives, and food bowls.” In studies where researchers tested samples of different brands of raw food, common contaminants included salmonella, listeria, campylobacter and E. coli (including an antibiotic-resistant strain).

You can get sick after touching the food or your pet’s feces and then your mouth, even if your dog or cat isn’t showing any signs of illness. Both the CDC and the American Veterinary Medical Association recommend against feeding your dogs and cats raw or undercooked animal-source protein. “If you look at the last few years, it’s one of the most common things being recalled due to safety,” says Randall Phebus, PhD, a professor of food safety and defense at the Food Science Institute at Kansas State University in Manhattan.

Other People

Even if you’re rigorous in handling your food and pets, your fellow humans might not be so fastidious. Just as infections from animals or food are usually due to fecal contamination, the same pathway works human to human. If your spouse, child, or co-worker, for example, is infected with a virus or bacteria (whether they’re symptomatic or not) and doesn’t wash their hands after using the bathroom, they can transmit the pathogen by touching you or something you will eat. Salmonella and E. coli are frequently passed this way, as is norovirus, which is the leading cause of foodborne illness, according to the CDC.

How to Stay Safe

Wash your hands. “The vast majority of infections can be prevented with hygiene,” Gull says. Any time you’ve been around someone who is sick or has touched an animal or their food, food bowls, or enclosures, the standard 20-second scrub with soap and water is in order. Always wash, too, after using the bathroom, changing a diaper, and playing or working outside, and before you sit down to eat. And teach children to follow these hand-washing rules early on, so they get into the habit.

Clean up. Keeping your animals’ outdoor enclosures as tidy as possible can help reduce the amount of feces they track around. Ask your veterinarian or local county extension service for advice on how to reduce infection risk for both outdoor and indoor animals.

Keep your distance. Young children (the most at-risk group for salmonella poisoning), anyone who’s pregnant, the elderly, or anyone with a compromised immune system should limit contact with high-risk animals, such as reptiles and chickens.

Stash your shoes. Remove your outdoor shoes before you come inside—especially if you’ve been working in a pet enclosure—to avoid tracking in feces and the bacteria that thrive in it.


Janet Lee

Janet Lee, LAc, is an acupuncturist and a freelance writer in Kansas who contributes to Consumer Reports on a range of health-related topics. She has been covering health, fitness, and nutrition for the past 25 years as a writer and editor. She's certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine and Yoga Alliance, and is a trained Spinning instructor.