The Lessons of Martha Stewart's Salmonella Case

Stewart says she caught salmonella on Thanksgiving. Are the new ways doctors are testing for similar foodborne illnesses hurting our ability to trace outbreaks?

Testing for food-borne illnesses, like the salmonella Martha Stewart says she caught on Thanksgiving, is quicker and easier than ever--and that might be a bad thing. (Photo: Maren Caruso/Getty Images)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Domestic doyenne Martha Stewart says she had a nasty bout with salmonella poisoning after handling a number of turkeys.

“I never get sick, but I came down with salmonella. I think I caught it because I was handling so many turkeys around Thanksgiving. I was on the Today show, I did a number of other [Thanksgiving] appearances. It really hit me hard and I was in bed for days. It was terrible,” she tells the New York Post.

We bet. Foodborne illness is serious stuff, impacting one in six Americans each year—48 million annually, including 3,000 cases that result in death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

We don’t know if Stewart actually made it into a physician and provided a stool sample to verify that it was indeed salmonella poisoning, or if she just made the jump from having her hands inside too many raw turkery to a self-diagnosis of salmonella. But if she did see a doctor, there’s a good chance her diagnosis may have come from one of the new nonculture tests that laboratories across the country are starting to adopt, as reported in Scientific American.

There’s a lot to like about the new tests: They’re cheaper and quicker, and lab technicians need less training to use them. In some instances, they may not require a stool sample at all. An added bonus? In cases of E. coli, the new rapid tests may detect an entire class of Shiga-toxin producing bacteria, which is pretty cool—except for one pesky, unintended consequence thing.

John Besser, chief of the CDC’s Enteric Diseases laboratory branch, tells TakePart that the new tests no longer collect an isolate from the stool sample. Why is that important? Because the isolate is what health officials use to obtain the DNA fingerprint of a pathogen, which is used to trace a widespread outbreak to its source. For example, the isolate helps officials determine whether or not the E. coli-tainted spinach found in Missouri, is the same E. coli-tainted spinach found in someone’s salad in Florida. Without the isolate, health officials may find themselves in the dark.

The nonculture lab tests are still relatively new, but more are in the pipeline, and Besser predicts laboratories will adopt them quickly.

Timothy F. Jones, Tennessee's State Epidemiologist, has also been sounding the alarm on the new lab tests.

“These rapid tests put us back where we were—without having the ability to do any DNA fingerprinting. The other thing we would lose is the ability to test for antibiotic resistance. We need the isolate. We’d basically be losing that. Eventually DNA technology will catch up, but right now, that’s the boat we’d be left in,” he tells TakePart.

Have the new tests already impeded the ability of state and national health officials to track a foodborne illness? So far, no. But Jones cautions that it’s temporary.

“When those technologies become more common, that’s when we’ll see a bigger effect.”

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