Salmonella, What It Actually Is and How You Can Avoid Getting Sick

Cage-Free Eggs

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You've likely heard about the latest salmonella alert. In 2010, it revolved around eggs, 550 million of them in all. Nearly 2,000 people in 17 states were sickened as a result of the outbreak. At the time, experts said that the outbreak was caused by rodents or tainted feed.

But what exactly is salmonella and how does it get into our food, or in this instance, our eggs? A recall of over half a billion eggs leaves us wondering what salmonella is and how it gets us sick. The cited outbreak of salmonella is caused by a strain of the bacteria called Salmonella Enteritidis. It's the most common strain of salmonella and it's responsible for about 20 percent of cases.

Down to the microscopic level, salmonella is a rod-shaped bacillus that is communicated through feces, from humans to animals, and then back again. While there are 2,300 strains of the disease, only two, Salmonella Enteritidis and Salmonella Typhimurium cause the majority of cases in the United States.

The symptoms of the disease are stomach cramps, diarrhea, and fever and they usually happen between 8 and 72 hours after eating contaminated foods. But it can be extremely painful and intense. In some cases, the sickness can be life-threatening for those with weak immune systems like kids, pregnant women, infants, unborn babies, and the elderly.

The subject of the egg recall, Salmonella Enteritidis, is found in chicken ovaries and then gets into the egg. It's then passed from chicken to chicken through feces.

Factory Farming and Salmonella

The recalled eggs were all from one farm, Wright County Egg. The owner of the Iowa farm, Jack DeCoster was said to provide "morally repugnant" working conditions and was a "habitual violator" of environmental laws according to prosecutors and regulators in the area.

But this is really no surprise. I've written about factory farming and the unbridled spread of disease before. According to the National Academy of Sciences, roughly 70 percent of the antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs used in the U.S. are fed to farm animals. The drugs are used not only to promote growth but to prevent the rampant disease from striking animals that are kept in filthy, stressful environments. In fact, many common bacteria including salmonella and a few other culprits like Campylobacter, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), and E. coli have even developed a resistance to these drugs.

But it's not just the frightening conditions that provide an ideal breeding ground for a host of diseases including salmonella. Instead, it's that these "factories" spread their glory out by the billions. Recalling half a billion eggs, that's preposterous. If factory farms didn't have the breadth and reach that they do today, then one farm couldn't inflict such widespread damage, like spreading disease across 17 states.

If you're going to eat foods that can spread these sicknesses like meat, poultry, and egg products, it seems sensible that you would want to know where they came from. Even beyond the fact that our current food system is completely unsustainable. Eating locally from small, sustainable farms means that you can depend on the harshest critic out there to inspect the food you eat, yourself.