Most of us take precautions in our kitchens against salmonella poisoning from chicken. We wipe up any raw juices on our countertop, wash cutting boards thoroughly and cook chicken all the way through, until it's no longer pink. This helps reduce the risk of salmonella, a bacteria that can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever, headaches and in some cases more severe problems that can lead to death. The elderly, infants and those with a compromised immune systems are the most at risk of serious complications from salmonella poisoning.
While it's smart to be vigilant with chicken, other foods are more likely to make you sick from salmonella. Chicken, beef and pork account for just 33% of salmonella poisonings in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
There are other sources of salmonella that may be surprising.
Leafy green vegetables — lettuces, spinach, kale and all their healthy green salad friends — are the biggest carriers of salmonella. About 35% of all foodborne illnesses are caused by bacteria lurking in a salad or in your sandwich fixings. The salmonella on greens is usually not as dangerous as the salmonella in chicken, but it's more prolific, causing more intestinal issues than fatalities.
Salmonella ends up on greens if there are contaminated greens in the field, if they've been washed with contaminated water, or if they come in contact with contaminated surfaces, utensils or hands. Bagged salads pose an even greater risk because the juices from the cut leaves along with the moisture in the enclosed bag increase the spread of salmonella, according to CBS News.
Washing the greens won't remove the salmonella, but that doesn't mean you should stop eating salads or adding lettuce to your sandwich. Handling the produce safely will reduce the risk of contamination. Make sure not to use cutting boards that haven't been thoroughly washed or utensils that have been used to handle uncooked meat. Washing your hands helps, too.
Raw milk and some cheeses
Unless milk is pasteurized, it can carry salmonella. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that anyone who consumes foods made from raw milk is susceptible, but children, teenagers, the elderly and pregnant women are particularly at risk. Soft cheeses (such as queso fresco, blue-veined, feta, brie and camembert) can carry salmonella, as can ice cream, and yogurt. A recent salmonella outbreak was linked to soft cheese from Mexico as well as beef. The CDC advises that people should avoid eating soft cheese that could be made from unpasteurized milk, regardless of the source. Raw milk cheese may be the exception because it's legally aged a minimum of 60 days, which minimizes the risk associated with natural bacteria.
The textured skins of melons are perfect hiding places for salmonella, according to Huffington Post. Damaged melons are even more at risk, so check the skins before you buy and opt for damage-free ones. Keep the melons in the refrigerator to slow the growth of any bacteria that may be on them.
Sprouts are often eaten raw, and uncooked food is most susceptible to salmonella. Because sprouts are grown in warm and humid conditions, the chance for bacteria growth is greater. In the U.S. between 1996 and 2016, there were 46 separate outbreaks of foodborne illness from sprouts that killed three people and hospitalized 187 others.
The good news is that the FDA is working on making sprouts safer, identifying producers that are the biggest contamination culprits and implementing practices that will help to keep contaminated sprouts from being sold to the public.
Even clean, uncracked eggs can contain salmonella, according to the FDA, although cracked eggs have a higher possibility of being contaminated. The FDA also estimates that "79,000 cases of foodborne illness and 30 deaths each year are caused by eating eggs contaminated with Salmonella." To help prevent getting sick from salmonella from eggs, keep the eggs in the refrigerator, cook eggs thoroughly (firm yolks), and cook any foods that contain eggs all the way.
Although chicken gets most of the blame, other meat can also be a source of salmonella. You can get the bacteria from beef and pork as well. A recent salmonella outbreak warning announced by the CDC was linked to beef sold in the U.S. To prepare beef safely, the CDC recommends cooking steaks, roasts, pork and ham to 145 degrees F (62.8 C) followed by a 3-minute rest time, and cooking ground beef and hamburgers to 160 degrees F (71.1 C).
Salmonella safety tips
Foodsafety.gov has some tips for minimizing the chances of salmonella poisoning.
- Avoid high-risk foods — raw or undercooked eggs, undercooked meat, unpasteurized milk and foods that contain these ingredients like raw cookie dough.
- Properly refrigerate food and properly thaw frozen food in the refrigerator.
- Clean your hands and counter surfaces before preparing food.
- Keep cooked food and raw foods separated and use separate cutting boards, plates and utensils for them.
- Make sure food is cooked to the proper internal temperature, using a meat thermometer to be certain.
- Chill leftovers or foods you've transported from one place to another promptly after serving.
- Wash your hands after you come in contact with animals, their foods or their living environments.
And, if you have chickens, don't hug or kiss them. This year, over 1,120 people in 48 states have contracted salmonella poisoning from contact with their backyard chickens. The handling of small turtles, which are illegal to sell as pets (but still happens anyway), has also been a source of salmonella recently.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was published in October 2017.