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How salmonella may have ended up in Honey Smacks cereal and Goldfish crackers

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 7/25/2018 Zlati Meyer

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Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, Ritz Crackers and Kellogg's Honey Smacks are among the recent voluntary recalls stemming from salmonella concerns.

For years,  salmonella scares have centered on raw or undercooked foods such as chicken, eggs or meat.

But this summer, there's concern that the bacteria may have found its way into the kind of packaged products where one would never expect it – Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, Ritz Crackers and Kellogg's Honey Smacks.

It turns out the potentially fatal pathogen is sneaky, able to survive not only wet but dry environments. In this case, whey powder, an ingredient often used in shelf-stable dry foods, may be tainted with salmonella.

The Goldfish, Ritz Crackers and Swiss rolls, made by Flowers Foods and sold under various brand names, are believed to use the whey powder manufactured by Associated Milk Producers, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Tuesday. The recalls have been initiated "out of an abundance of caution."

"There is no evidence at this time that anyone was sickened from one of these products, or that these products are contaminated," FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement. "We know that these are products that are widely eaten by consumers, including children. That’s, in part, why we are taking steps to intervene early on this potential risk." 

But grocer's shelves may still be hit again soon.

"As there are likely other food products made by other manufacturers that also use this common ingredient, there may be other recalls initiated in the coming days," the FDA said.

On Tuesday, AMPI voluntarily recalled whey powder packaged in 50-pound and 25-kilogram bags produced at the cooperative’s Blair, Wisconsin, plant during certain periods in May and June. ."

The company called it a "precautionary recall" and said all products shipped to the manufacturers tested negative for Salmonella. Production at that plant has stopped.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a public health alert about certain packages of Hungry-Man Chipotle BBQ Boneless Chicken Wyngz. AMPI's whey powder is among the ingredients.

What is salmonella?

It's a bacteria that sickens an estimated 1.2 million people in the U.S. each year, causing 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Food is responsible for 1 million of those cases, 19,000 hospital stays and 380 deaths.

Salmonella originates in feces and is spread through contact. That can mean via unwashed hands contaminating the next thing they touch or tiny dirt spores, tainted with traces of animal poop, entering a food manufacturing plant, according to Martin Bucknavage, a Pennsylvania State University food safety expert.

Despite its association with raw protein, salmonella has nothing to do with fish. It was named after Dr. Daniel Salmon, who ran the federal Bureau of Animal Industry in the late 19th century.

How does it get into packaged foods?

You might think salmonella couldn't make it through the baking process, but food companies don't want to risk it, explained Brian Kellerman, a Columbus, Ohio-based food-safety expert. Salmonella can thrive in a dry environment, plus it can stick around on the equipment itself, which can be trouble for the next batch.

Salmonella is notorious for its ability to survive for a long time, even in a dry environment, unlike E. coli and listeria, which need damp environments. And salmonella's low infectious rate means it takes a tiny amount of bacteria to cause trouble.

What's whey powder?

Yes, like Little Miss Muffet's, but her whey came in wet form. The powder form is easier for food companies to work with.

Whey, a byproduct of milk, is like"adding milk without adding milk," Bucknavage said. "You're getting the protein you need for the product."

What happens when salmonella is found in dry foods?

The plants where the foods are made will undergo comprehensive cleaning, according to experts. Dry facilities – factories that make packaged goods such as cereal and crackers – are cleaned using an ethanol-based sanitizer, dry ice, peracetic acid or chlorine bleach.

Are salmonella-related recalls more prevalent now?

Yes, said Kellerman, who credits more regulations requiring food manufacturing plants to test ingredients when they come in the door and to keep equipment cleaner.

"We’re getting better at finding it," he said. "The industry better understands how they make their way through."

What are the symptoms?

Diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps appear 12 to 72 hours after a person is infected, the CDC said. Expect them to last four to seven days. Most people get better without any treatment, but if the diarrhea is severe, they must be hospitalized. Most vulnerable are the elderly, babies and people who have impaired immune systems.

How can I prevent salmonella?

The CDC's list of suggestions includes:

  • Thoroughly cook poultry, ground beef and eggs.
  • Don't eat or drink foods made with raw eggs or raw – also known as unpasteurized – milk. Examples include Hollandaise sauce, cookie dough, frosting, tiramisu and homemade salad dressing, ice cream and mayonnaise.
  • Use soap and water to immediately wash anything that has come in contact with raw meat or poultry, such as kitchen counters, cutting boards, cooking utensils and your hands.
  • After touching pet feces, reptiles, birds or chicks, wash your hands with soap.

Follow USA TODAY reporter Zlati Meyer on Twitter: @ZlatiMeyer

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