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Types of Food Poisoning: Salmonella

What is Salmonella?

Salmonella is a bacteria that lives in the digestive tracts of many animals, including humans, cows, and birds. People who eat food contaminated by Salmonella can contract a disease called salmonellosis, which causes diarrhea, stomach cramps, and fever within a week. Most cases of salmonellosis last less than a week and people recover after a few months with no long term consequences. However, in severe cases, patients can become dehydrated, develop pain in their eyes and joints, or develop a form of typhoid. These patients may need to be hospitalized and can experience pain long after the initial infection has passed.

How does Salmonella Spread?

Since Salmonella lives in animals’ digestive tracts, meat and eggs from infected animals may contain salmonella. Healthy looking pets, especially birds and reptiles, may also have salmonella, which can be transferred to human hands after handling.

Salmonella can also seep into the water that has come in contact with animal feces. Fruits and vegetables may become contaminated with salmonella if that water was used to irrigate crops.

Salmonella and the Law

People can contract salmonellosis from eating restaurant food that was not prepared properly or by consuming a contaminated food product.

Lawsuits based on contaminated food products can proceed on any of several legal theories:

●     Strict Liability: If suing under a strict liability theory, the plaintiff only needs to prove that she got sick after eating something produced by the defendant. It is not necessary to prove that the defendant did anything incorrectly.

●     Violation of Express or Implied Warranty: People who sell food implicitly promise that the food is safe for consumption. Food contaminated with salmonella is clearly not safe for consumption.

●     Negligence: Negligence requires you to prove that the food manufacturer did not exercise due care when producing the food that gave you salmonella. However if the manufacturer followed industry standard practices, even if they seem unsanitary, they may not be liable under a theory of negligence.

If the plaintiff contracted salmonella by eating at a restaurant, her lawyer would most likely proceed under a theory of negligence. These arguments have four basic elements: (1) duty, a (2) breach of duty (3) which caused (4) harm.  Restaurants have a duty, often imposed by local governments, to maintain sanitary conditions and serve food that is safe to eat. Salmonella can be easily prevented by storing food properly and ensuring that all meats are cooked to minimum safe cooking temperatures. In addition, restaurants should take basic precautions like requiring that all employees wash their hands frequently. If a restaurant fails to do these things, it runs the risk of breaching its duty to its patrons by selling food contaminated with norovirus.

Preventing Salmonella Infection

Even though victims of severe salmonella infections may sue for their injuries, it’s best not to get sick in the first place. Here are some simple steps to help prevent salmonella infection:

●     Cook poultry, ground beef, and eggs thoroughly. Remember to use a digital thermometer and consult the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for minimum safe cooking temperatures. Do not eat or drink foods containing raw eggs, or raw (unpasteurized) milk.

●     If you are served undercooked meat, poultry or eggs in a restaurant, don't hesitate to send it back to the kitchen for further cooking.

●     Wash hands, kitchen work surfaces, and utensils with soap and water immediately after they have been in contact with raw meat or poultry.

●     Wash hands with soap after handling reptiles, birds, or baby chicks, and after contact with pet feces.

●     Don't work with raw poultry or meat, and an infant (e.g., feed, change diaper) at the same time.

For more information, see FindLaw’s sections on Product Liability and Litigation.

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