How to protect yourself from salmonella food poisoning

Salmonella is an unpleasant experience, but tracking down what caused your food poisoning can be just as painful. From potential culprits to solutions, here’s what experts say you should know.

Australia is no stranger to food poisoning with reportedly around 4.1 million cases each year.

But some statistics show around 55,000 of these cases are caused by salmonella, the second most common source of severe acute diarrhoea in Australia.

What is salmonella food poisoning?

Also known as salmonellosis, salmonella is a form of gastroenteritis or food poisoning.

According to the World Health Organisation, while salmonella cases are typically mild, it can sometimes be life-threatening depending on various host factors and the type of salmonella strain.

This foodborne illness can also be linked to backyard poultry such as chickens and ducks.

“It’s great to have fresh eggs and for kids to learn about where their food comes from,” Food Safety Information Council chair Cathy Moir says.

“But backyard chooks and ducks can be a source of salmonella infections which can cause serious illnesses.”

Symptoms of salmonella food poisoning

Symptoms of salmonellosis usually occur within six to 72 hours of eating contaminated food and can include diarrhoea, fever, headache, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting and dehydration.

Most people will recover within a week, according to NSW Health, but medical consultation is recommended if symptoms have lasted longer than a few days.

What causes salmonella food poisoning?

As well as in backyard chooks, the bacteria can be found in undercooked meat, raw or undercooked eggs and foods that contain these products, such as raw egg mayonnaise and some desserts.

This also includes cooked food that comes into contact with the bacteria.

Fruits and vegetables, like leafy salad vegetables, that come into contact with contaminated soil can also carry salmonella bacteria.

And if you’re unsure what caused your salmonella poisoning, the Food Safety Information Council says this is where their “food detectives” play a role.

“More recently whole genome sequencing has emerged as a highly accurate tool… to identify the viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites that cause foodborne disease,” Cathy says.

“Tracking down what caused these cases is a huge job and in the past, this was only done by asking those with food poisoning what and where they had eaten recently and trying to link that information to a particular source of the suspect food or type of food.”

How to protect yourself against salmonella food poisoning

Without precautionary measures, salmonella poisoning could increase the risk of immune-relate diseases such as arthritis and potentially be passed along from a pregnant mother to her baby.

“Have different chopping boards for food preparation – have a board for chicken, one for red meat, one for fish and one for salad and vegetables, and only use those boards for that purpose,” Dietitians Australia Margaret Hay says.

“Don’t cut salads on the board you’ve just used to cut raw chicken, for example. And once you’ve finished, wash the chopping board in hot, soapy water and dry it well.”

Salmonella can also grow in foods that aren’t stored at the right temperature, which can become a bigger problem in warmer weather if food is left out for a while.

“Cool foods should be stored below 5C and hot foods need to be above 60C,” Margaret says.

“Don’t leave foods on the bench and don’t keep reheating foods.”

Other food safety tips:

  • Ensure raw chicken stored in the fridge is wrapped, so that its juices do not drip on to food below.
  • Wash fruit and vegetables thoroughly before eating them.
  • Reheat leftovers only once, and only reheat the amount of food you want to eat.
  • Throw away food after it has been in the fridge for two to three days.

For more on food safety:

Written by Sarah Marinos. Updated by Melissa Hong in July 2023.