Do I need to worry about the salmonella outbreak in Canada? What to know after 5 deaths, 44 hospitalizations

A food scientist said a lot is still unknown.

Several brands of fresh cantaloupe are subjects of recall warnings in Canada due to salmonella. (Getty)
Several brands of fresh cantaloupe are subjects of recall warnings in Canada due to salmonella. (Getty)

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

As Canada grapples with a salmonella outbreak linked to cantaloupe and other melons, dozens of people have reported illness and five Canadians have died.

On Thursday, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) reported 129 lab-confirmed cases of salmonella strains soahanina, sundsvall and oranienburg, across six provinces. There have been 44 hospitalizations and five deaths from to the bacteria.

In the past month, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) issued three food recall warnings on the contamination of cantaloupe and likely other melons with salmonella. The warnings advise Canadians to "not eat, serve, use, sell or distribute" Malichita or Rudy brand cantaloupe.

"If you are unable to verify the brand of cantaloupe, or if your produce is part of the CFIA recalls, it is recommended to throw it out," the agency said.

PHAC added more recalls were issued for products made using recalled cantaloupes and those processed with recalled cantaloupes. "This includes other fruit like honeydew, pineapple, watermelon and various fruit trays."

This outbreak is not limited to just Canada. South of the border, three people have died, 96 have been hospitalized and 230 cases have been confirmed as of Dec. 7.

Is this something Canadians should worry about? Yahoo Canada previously spoke with Ontario food scientist Dr. Lawrence Goodridge. Read on for everything you need to know about the salmonella outbreak.

What do we know about the bacteria causing this salmonella outbreak?

Some strains in the current salmonella outbreak in North America are very rare. (Getty)
Some strains in the current salmonella outbreak in North America are very rare. (Getty)

Salmonella is a bacteria that causes salmonellosis, an illness characterized by symptoms of diarrhea, fever and stomach pains, among others. A person generally becomes infected with salmonella after ingesting it through food, but it can also be spread from person-to-person or surface contact.

According to Goodridge, the specific salmonella strains involved in this outbreak — soahanina, sundsvall, and oranienburg — are relatively rare in Canada.

While the latter has been associated with outbreaks, the first two are notably uncommon. "I don't recall ever seeing any illnesses caused by those before," Goodridge claimed.

Why is this outbreak happening?

In the past two weeks, there has been a surge in recalls concerning fresh fruit.

The reasons for the sudden appearance of these strains are unclear, and Goodridge suggested the source of contamination needs to be identified before understanding why these bacteria caused the outbreak.

He speculated if a producer is linked to both cantaloupe and other fruits, cross-contamination might be a factor. For instance, if a producer handles contaminated cantaloupes and also packages fresh-cut fruit trays, cross-contamination could occur during processing.

Should Canadians worry about the salmonella outbreak?

It's estimated salmonella causes about 87,500 illnesses each year in Canada. But, Goodridge explained severe reactions and death are rare.

Certain high-risk populations, such as young children, the elderly, those with weakened immune systems, and pregnant women, are more susceptible to severe outcomes.

Gastrointestinal ache, pain. Stomach disease. Stomachache, gastritis. High quality photo
Salmonellosis can cause a fever and gastrointestinal issues. (Getty)

To know how severe the current outbreak really is, the professor said researchers will need to know the distribution of these high-risk groups among the reported cases.

However, he noted it is "a pretty large outbreak" considering its spread through multiple Canadian provinces and more than 30 states in the U.S.

How can Canadians stay safe from salmonella?

Given the recurrent nature of outbreaks linked to fresh fruits and vegetables, Goodridge advised Canadians to consider purchasing whole fruits and vegetables instead of pre-cut options.

"The more food is handled or processed, that increases the risk of contamination," he said.

Additionally, practicing thorough food hygiene, washing all produce and cleaning utensils and surfaces before food preparation can significantly reduce the risk of salmonella infection.

Storing fruits and vegetables in the fridge, consuming them promptly and maintaining good hand hygiene are crucial preventive measures.

In addition to fresh fruits, some of the most common culprits of salmonella infection include:

  • Raw or undercooked poultry (chicken, turkey)

  • Eggs

  • Sprouts

  • Peanut butter

  • Seafood

  • Pet food

While maintaining proper hygiene and food safety best practices, Canadians are also advised to keep an eye out for food recalls.

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