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New genetic technique finds bacterial culprit

Lorraine Graves   Sep-13-2018

The Government of Canada today issued a warning for a whole class of food.

Screen grab from Google

The Government of Canada today issued a public health notice that says, “As of September 13, 2018, there have been 419 laboratory-confirmed cases of Salmonella illness investigated as part of the illness outbreaks across the country…There have been 86 individuals hospitalized as part of these outbreaks…Infections have occurred in Canadians of all ages and genders.”

Canadians are coming down with salmonella food poisoning at a surprising rate and, now, thanks to science, we know what’s causing it and what to do.



Dr. Eleni Galanis public health physician with the BC Centres for Disease Control says, with the use of a new scientific technique, we know the main culprit, frozen breaded chicken.

“This ability to identify widespread outbreaks and to link them to frozen breaded chicken or chicken has improved since 2017,” says Galanis.

While we have learned to handle raw, dripping chicken properly to prevent contaminating other surfaces, we aren’t as careful with frozen breaded chicken.

Galanis surmises, “It looks cooked. It’s breaded with brown breaded product so they look cooked, but they are not.”

This government warning is not a recall of a specific brand. In fact, it is not a recall at all. You can still keep eating these products safely if you treat it as raw chicken.

“What we are trying to highlight this time around is that it can be found in any chicken product,” says Galanis.

The federal government’s notice says, “Foods carrying Salmonella may look, smell and taste normal, so it’s important to follow safe food-handling tips for buying, chilling, thawing, cleaning, cooking, and storing any chicken products.”

Galanis says, it does not mean we need to stop eating chicken at all, even frozen breaded chicken. It does mean we have to learn to be careful, as careful as we are with obviously raw chicken and meat.

Today’s warning comes thanks to the information gained from a genetic technique, called whole genome sequencing, which Canada started using in April of 2017 as a tool to help track the bacteria in food.

“What we haven’t been able to do before is linking these widespread outbreaks,” She says.

“It is more widespread than we thought before and causing more illnesses than we knew about. It’s more related to frozen breaded chicken than we thought,” says Galanis.

According to Genome BC’s Dr. Lisey Mascarenhas this use of this new technique allows for better tracking of diseases caused by what we eat.

“This tool has the potential to be part of a defensive food safety strategy to reduce illnesses and food safety related business risks,” she says.

Galanis says, “It’s like DNA fingerprinting for the bugs that make us sick.”

Because of this sophisticated genetic sleuthing where salmonella is concerned, Galanis says “We now have the DNA fingerprint of the bug and have traced it back to breaded frozen chicken products.”

She says, “That lets us link one sick person to another and show it is the same bug. We then can link sick people to a potential source, in this case, frozen breaded chicken.”

Now that we know the source, it gives us all the power to prevent salmonella from this source. The general public can learn to cook and handle frozen breaded chicken bits safely.

As well as at home, Galanis says, “Change is happening. In April 2019 the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Canadian Government says all frozen, raw chicken products must be produced so that they don’t contain salmonella. How is up to them.”

She says companies are already making changes to make frozen breaded chicken even safer, “Some of the companies who have gone first, have precooked it. They can do whatever they need to do to get the salmonella levels down to an undetectable level. That’s a great success.”

Meanwhile, if you do get sick, take heart. Galanis says most people get all better on their own.

She does advise that you not cook or handle other people’s food if you suspect you have food bourn illness because you can pass it on to others. Also, tell you doctor so they can test and report your illness. That way, it can be added to other cases. This helps the food detectives sleuth out the ultimate cause and warn others.

For now, if you cook and handle frozen breaded chicken properly, like you do with obviously raw chicken, Galanis says you don’t have to avoid chicken at all. “We have to take precautions when preparing it. Chicken must be cooked to 74 degrees Celsius. And remember to wash your hands with soap and warm water after handling, ideally for 20 seconds.”

And it’s not just chicken, Galanis says, “All raw protein may contain microbes that may cause illness.? It doesn’t mean we need to avoid eating these source of protein. ?It does mean we need to handle them properly, cook them properly, and clean the surfaces and tools in warm soapy water.”

Galanis credits the new genetic technique that pinpoints sources of food bourn illness as a harbinger of safer food.

“This is a good news story for us in a way,” she says. “Because of the evidence we’ve been able to accumulate over last 16 months, change is happening.”

Poultry safety fact sheet.

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