And now, Carnac the Magnificent will use his mystical powers to answer the riddle before hearing it: “An Aztec warrior, a couple of eggheads from Cornell and a middle schooler from Utah.”

The question in the envelope has, of course, been hermetically sealed in a mayonnaise jar on Funk and Wagnalls’ porch since noon today.

Johnny Carson as Carnac the MagnificentAs usual, the great seer, soothsayer and sage has ascertained the correct answer. The riddle this time: “Describe an ancient Mexican, two nerds and a modern teenager who had/have close, personal relationships with Salmonella.”

Johnny Carson’s alter ego came to mind in recent days as I pondered the awesome power of the pathogen and the headlines it’s been generating. Carson and the writers for NBC’s “The Tonight Show” could take seemingly unrelated details from such news and weave witty bits of repartee for Carnac and Ed McMahon, culminating with the wacky answer that made perfect sense when Johnny finally opened the envelope.

There’s no way to reach that level of humor in this column. Salmonella is serious stuff and I’m just not that clever. But the Aztecs, food safety researchers at Cornell University and a 15-year-old kid in Utah really do share a Salmonella connection.

Ancient DNA tells tales
A team of researchers from academic institutions in the U.S., Germany, Switzerland and Mexico is advancing the theory that Salmonella is the source of the epidemic that wiped out the Aztec civilization in the 1500s. They used a metagenomic tool to analyze DNA from remains in an epidemic cemetery at Teposcolula-Yucundaa, Oaxaca in southern Mexico.

The analysis of DNA from the teeth of the Aztecs showed the presence of Salmonella enterica. It has been likened to typhus, and in modern times, kills about 10 percent to 15 percent of those infected.

“This cemetery is linked to the 1545-1550 CE epidemic locally known as ‘cocoliztli,’ the cause of which has been debated for over a century,” according to the study abstract in bioRxiv.

“Here we present two reconstructed ancient genomes for Salmonella enterica subsp. enterica serovar Paratyphi C, a bacterial cause of enteric fever. We propose that S. Paratyphi C contributed to the population decline during the 1545 cocoliztli outbreak in Mexico.”

Speaking of DNA, Salmonella as a genetic engineer
Even though it is estimated to cause 1 million foodborne illnesses in the U.S. every year, with 19,000 hospitalizations and 380 deaths, Salmonella infection has long been seen as a less-than-life-threatening scenario.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most people infected with Salmonella develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after becoming infected. The illness usually lasts a week or less, and most people recover without treatment. However, in some cases, the diarrhea may be so severe that the patient needs to be hospitalized.

So, unless you are in a high-risk group — young children, elderly people, pregnant women or people with compromised immune systems — you’re gonna spend a few days staggering between the bathroom and your bed, but you’ll live to tell about it if your fresh sprouts or raw milk are contaminated with Salmonella.

At least that was the conventional wisdom. That’s one of the things I love about science. It allows for conventional wisdom to become better informed.

Martin Wiedmann and Rachel Miller of Cornell University.
Martin Wiedmann and Rachel Miller of Cornell University.

The brilliance of Cornell’s Gellert Family Professor in Food Safety, Martin Wiedmann, and doctoral candidate Rachel Miller is shining a new light on the impact a “simple bout of food poisoning” can have. They’ve found evidence it permanently damages victims’ DNA.

“Not all salmonella serotypes are equal,” Miller said in a news item from University Relations at Cornell University.

Miller and Wiedmann examined multiple serotypes of salmonella and found some that encode for cytolethal distending toxin — S-CDT, a virulence component for serotype Typhi — can cause DNA damage and contribute to long-term disease consequences.

“Think about possible DNA damage this way: We apply sunscreen to keep the sun from damaging our skin. If you don’t apply sunscreen, you can get a sunburn — and possibly develop skin problems later in life,” said Miller.

“While not the sun, salmonella bacteria may work in a similar way. The more you expose your body’s cells to DNA damage, the more DNA damage that needs to be repaired, and there may one day be a chance that the DNA damage is not correctly repaired. We don’t really know right now the true permanent damage from these salmonella infections.”

That which does not kill us makes us stronger
So what about the 15-year-old kid in Utah? What’s the Salmonella connection? Why is Friedrich Nietzsche suddenly relevant? Walk with me on the beach beat and connect the dots.

Since 2009 there have been 30 documented outbreaks associated with raw milk sold at Utah dairies statewide, with more than 400 people becoming ill, according to the state health department. The 15-year-old kid is one of nine people confirmed with Salmonella infections in an outbreak in 2016 that was traced to raw milk.

Who knows if the kid wanted to drink the unpasteurized raw milk — did a friend’s parents serve it with lunch after soccer practice? Did the child’s own parents serve the raw milk? All we know is the child’s DNA could be permanently damaged from the Salmonella infection contracted from the unpasteurized milk.

We also know that Utah’s public health officials, along with their peers across the country and at the CDC, USDA and Food and Drug Administration all warn parents about the dangers of pathogens in unpasteurized raw milk.

“Public health officials warn that drinking raw milk may be dangerous, regardless of where it is obtained,” according to the Utah outbreak report. “Raw milk should not be consumed by young children, pregnant women, the elderly, people with weakened or compromised immune systems, or anyone who does not want to become ill.”

This is where the famed philosopher enters the picture. Many raw milk advocates express a view similar to Nietzsche’s observation “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

In the raw milk community the good old days are often referenced, with advocates of unpasteurized milk saying a little exposure to bugs will help a body build resistance. However, they never reference any peer-reviewed research to support their case. See my note below regarding this point, I’m on a roll here.

sickbaby-350When the kids of raw milk advocates get sick with infections from Salmonella or E. coli or Listeria it’s never the unpasteurized milk at fault. In a way, I agree. It’s not the fault of the raw milk. Even teaming with bacteria, milk can’t be anything but an inanimate object when you’re on the beach beat.

It’s the fault of the parents, and I think they should be held accountable.

Virtually no one argues with the concept of a minimum age to drink alcohol. The physically addictive nature of alcohol, plus the damage it can do to a developing body and brain are well known. No one would think twice about indicting a parent on criminal charges if they gave their underage child so much alcohol that hospitalization was required.

If you want to drink unpasteurized raw milk, go for it. But don’t tell me it’s not appropriate for the government to tell you not to give it to children. Rules about booze, cigarettes, car safety seats and raw milk not only protect children, they protect society at large by reducing the number of illnesses, hospitalizations, ongoing health problems, etc., associated with such substances and behaviors.

Researchers research raw milk research
Back in 2014 when the Maryland House of Delegates’ Health and Government Operations Committee was considering legislation related to the sale of raw milk, the lawmakers did an outrageous thing. They sought unbiased scientific information.

The resulting review of literature of the risks and benefits of consuming raw and pasteurized cow’s milk says what the raw milk advocates don’t want to talk about.

“Overall, our review identified no evidence that the potential benefits of consuming raw milk outweigh the known health risks,” according to the researchers from the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

“Based on our findings, we discourage the consumption of raw milk. The risks of consuming raw milk instead of pasteurized milk are well established in the scientific literature, and in some cases can have severe or even fatal consequences. The potential benefits on the other hand, are still unclear and would benefit from further investigation. We are left with a large uncertainty about the potential benefits of raw milk but with a clear understanding of the microbial hazards from consuming raw milk.”

The researchers identified more than 1,000 scientific articles for consideration in their review. They concluded that drinking raw milk carries an increased risk of foodborne illness as compared to drinking pasteurized milk.

“While some articles noted nutritional deficiencies in pasteurized milk, these can be overcome by eating a well-balanced diet. Overall, our review identified no evidence that the potential benefits of consuming raw milk outweigh the known health risks.”

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)