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How salmonella-tainted food gets into your fridge

The USDA knows it’s there.

Salmonella infections are the most common cause of foodborne illnesses in the US.

More than a million Americans get sick every year, and nearly 400 die from their infections. Compare that to the more well-known E. coli, which only kills 20 Americans each year. That difference has a lot to do with how the two bacteria are regulated.

Several strains of E. coli are classified as “adulterants” by the US Department of Agriculture. Adulterants, substances like listeria, chemicals, and color additives, are considered too dangerous to enter the human food chain. When regulators find them in raw meat, producers must destroy the contaminated items or cook the meat for use in ready-to-eat foods.

But the USDA doesn’t classify salmonella as an adulterant, which means producers can sell salmonella-tainted meat to retailers and grocery stores. About 18 percent of chicken and 15 percent of ground turkey contain salmonella. And because it’s a non-adulterant, the USDA will only recall contaminated meat after people get sick.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food safety watchdog, petitioned the USDA to classify antibiotic-resistant salmonella strains as adulterants. Yet the USDA denied the petition, citing that “ordinary methods of cooking and preparing food kill Salmonella.”

This is true — fully cooking contaminated meat will kill salmonella. But the same could be said about most strains of E. coli. The USDA argues that since E. coli is found mostly in beef, and Americans like to undercook their burgers, it’s worth regulating as an adulterant. Salmonella is mostly found in poultry, and no one purposely eating a medium-rare turkey burger.

Yet a surprising number of Americans are eating undercooked poultry. In an observational study conducted by the USDA, 45 percent of participants didn’t fully cook their turkey burgers to 165 degrees. And they didn’t wash their hands after handling raw meat a staggering 97 percent of the time.

So follow good food safety rules: Keep raw meat away from produce in your fridge, don’t wash poultry, and use a meat thermometer to make sure you’re properly cooking meat. Because until the USDA classifies it as an adulterant, salmonella prevention is on you.