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There’s something dangerous lurking in that cookie—something potentially more dangerous than the seven grams of fat or four grams of sugar. Researchers at the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences recently found that pathogens like salmonella can survive for six months in cookies and crackers.

 Certain kinds of bacteria can survive for months ven packaged foods like cookies.

Image Source: Stuart Stevenson Photography

A little bit about salmonella: It is a bacteria that causes diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps. Less severe cases will usually pass within a few days, but more serious cases might require hospitalization and treatment with antibiotics. The infection might spread from the intestines to other parts of the body, potentially causing death.

Salmonella is most often found in foods of animal origin such as beef or eggs, contaminated by animal feces. However, the bacteria can also survive in other foods like vegetables. The bacteria can spread from raw meat drippings to counters or shopping carts, and then to other foods that touch those areas.

The researchers’ study, published in the Journal of Food Protection, used five different types of salmonella from dry foods that had been involved in outbreaks of the disease. The researchers then stored the salmonella in cheese, peanut butter, chocolate, and vanilla fillings for the crackers and cookies and tested them periodically to find out how long the salmonella could survive in those dry foods. The researchers found that the pathogen survived longer in cookie sandwich fillings than in cracker sandwich fillings, lasting as long as six months. The crackers and cookies used in the study were commercially available snacks.

The researchers’ study suggests that the bacteria can survive even in dry foods for long periods of time. This means that if bacteria are transferred to dry foods because of sloppy practices in manufacturing plants or kitchens, the bacteria could linger long enough to cause foodborne illnesses in consumers.

Every year, 1.2 million cases of the salmonella poisoning are identified in the United States, and 450 American deaths are attributed to the disease. Those with weaker immune systems, like infants or the elderly, are more prone to contracting the disease.

These findings make it more important than ever for manufacturing processes to be properly and sanitarily conducted. They also suggest that once researchers can identify the specific ingredients in cookies or crackers particularly susceptible to hosting pathogens–a potential future goal for researchers–the use of those ingredients in food products should be more carefully regulated or replaced.

While the researcher’s results should not prompt consumers to shy away from all the cookies and crackers in stores, people should recognize that pathogens can survive in dry foods. Once further studies can pinpoint the responsible ingredients, manufacturers can then also take measures to avoid contamination and the spread of such pathogens.

Feature image source: Flickr electron microscope photo salmonella by Penn State

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