Chow Line: Yes, Nonperishable foods can become contaminated with pathogens that cause foodborne illnesses

puffed wheat cereal

Q: I never knew that nonperishable foods like breakfast cereal can become contaminated with salmonella – how is that possible?

A: While many people are aware that fresh produce and raw meat can become contaminated with pathogens that cause foodborne illnesses, fewer people think about nonperishable foods like breakfast cereal becoming contaminated with the same kind of pathogens.

Such is the case in the recent outbreak of Salmonella Mbandaka that has been traced back to a popular sweetened puffed wheat breakfast cereal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning last week advising consumers “do not eat any Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal because it has been linked to a multistate outbreak of Salmonella infections.”

As of July 12, the CDC said that some 100 consumers in 33 states, including Ohio, have been sickened from eating the cereal. Of those, 30 people have required hospitalization.

Although the CDC warning first advised consumers to throw out Honey Smacks cereal with a specific “use-by” date, the warning was later updated to include any and all packages of the cereal, regardless of the date label.

According to the CDC, there are some 2,000 different strains of salmonella, some of which are “relatively resistant to (the dehydration process) and can survive for long periods of time in dry environments such as cereal.”

The origin of the Honey Smacks salmonella outbreak has been traced back to the contract manufacturing facility that produces the cereal, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Pathogens such as salmonella often initially contaminate foods through contact with fecal matter, said Abigail Snyder, an assistant professor and food safety field specialist in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) at The Ohio State University.

So, for example, if a food is made from grain or produce that has come into contact with animal feces in the field or in the soil in which it is grown, or if the grain comes into contact with water that contains the pathogen, salmonella can be transferred from the feces onto the grain, she said.

Salmonella can also spread at the food manufacturing plant if a contaminated ingredient comes into contact with equipment that then touches other foods.

“Preventing cross-contamination in production environments for low-moisture foods is a real challenge,” Snyder said. “The application of effective cleaning and sanitation strategies is an area the food industry continues to address.”

Other types of nonperishable foods that have been implicated in salmonella outbreaks include dried milk, infant cereal and other dry cereals, according to the CDC.

So if you still have Honey Smacks in your pantry, the CDC says you should throw it out, even if you’ve already eaten some and haven’t gotten sick. The agency also advises that consumers who’ve stored the affected cereal in a container outside the original packaging should wash the container with warm, soapy water before using it again.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was edited by Abigail Snyder, an assistant professor and food safety field specialist for CFAES.

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