Serve a great turkey, not salmonella, this Thanksgiving

This month’s Thanksgiving turkey might contain more than bread stuffing. It could also harbor salmonella, a bacterial pathogen that causes foodborne illness in 1.2 million Americans each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That’s why molecular epidemiologist Margaret Davis of Washington State University’s Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health prepares turkey “as if it’s contaminated with salmonella. When handling any type of poultry, I err on the side of safety,” she said.

As co-author of seven salmonella studies in the past 15 years, Davis should know. She investigates the many ways these pathogens are transmitted and why some strains have become resistant to antibiotics.

“Salmonella is an extremely robust organism,” she said; noting it has the ability to survive in a wide range of environments - from water and soil to, literally, the kitchen sink.

No. 1 cause of food poisoning

While most salmonella infections inflict mild to moderate gastrointestinal distress lasting 4-7 days, others leave a dark and permanent legacy, killing an estimated 100,000 people worldwide annually. Children, the elderly and people with impaired immune systems are most vulnerable, said Davis.

“Not only are salmonella bacteria ubiquitous in the environment, but they’re hardy,” she said.

Davis said the bacteria make their way into many types of foods: poultry, meat and eggs are the biggest targets, but disease outbreaks have also been tied to spinach and even peanut butter.

The organisms can withstand freezing temperatures, dry conditions, zero oxygen and high acidity inside the human gut. They can survive in soil and water for months and on countertops and cutting boards for weeks, she explained.

The secret to destroying the pathogens is to thoroughly clean and thoroughly cook.

“High heat kills the bacteria, so the biggest risk at home comes from undercooking,” said Davis.

“People should also be aware of cross-contamination, which occurs when countertops, sinks and utensils aren’t adequately cleaned after the raw poultry or meat is handled.”

For example, after trussing a raw turkey on a cutting board, if the cook doesn’t thoroughly clean its surface before chopping lettuce, lurking salmonella organisms could then contaminate both the knife and the lettuce.

And that is why, at WSU’s Allen School, Davis continues her work to understand how salmonella bacteria get from point A to point B and beyond to ultimately carry out their dirty work.


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