In October of this year, the CDC announced a recall of red, while, and yellow onions from Chihuahua, Mexico. These onions—which were imported to the United States between July 1 and August 31, 2021—have been linked to salmonella infections and are not safe to consume. We spoke with experts about what you need to know about the recall, and how you can avoid getting sick from these, and other potentially contaminated produce.
Who Is Affected by the Onion Recall?
As of October 29, the CDC has reported that 808 people have fallen ill as a result of the salmonella-tainted onions. These instances have been reported across 37 states in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. The affected onions were grown by ProSource Produce LLC and Keeler Family Farms, and were sold in both mesh sacks or wooden crates in various sizes. Although the farm of origin was Keeler Family Farms, affected onions have also been labeled under the following brands: Big Bull, Peak Fresh Produce, Sierra Madre, Markon First Crop, Markon Essentials, Rio Blue, ProSource, Rio Valley, and Sysco Imperial. The onions may have been labeled with any of the following descriptors, or more: jumbo, colossal, medium, summer, and sweet onions.
You can check the onions in your kitchen and at the grocery store by looking for a produce sticker with the origin details. Food retailers should also issue recall statements. If you aren’t sure whether the onions in your pantry have been affected by the recall, you can call your grocery store and check online for statements by packaged products made with onions.
There is also a short list compiled by the FDA listing companies and products that have used the onions affected by the recall, including meal kit delivery services. If you have any of the products listed, you should not consume them, even fully cooked.
The best course of action is to remove the onions from your home. According to Courtney Rhodes from the FDA, “If you cannot tell if your onions were recalled, do not eat, sell, or serve them and throw them out.” You should never consume onions or any produce that may be infected by salmonella, even if you have previously consumed them and did not fall ill.
What Is Salmonella and How Do I Know If I Have It?
Salmonella is a bacterial disease that affects the intestinal tract. It is commonly transmitted to humans through the consumption of infected produce. According to Rhodes, harmful bacteria could affect fruits and vegetables from the soil or water during growing. She also notes that, “Fresh produce may also become contaminated after it is harvested, such as during storage or preparation.”
Salmonella can survive in soil and water.
The CDC lists these as the top signs of salmonella to watch for: diarrhea, blood in stool, fever of over 102 F, dehydration, severe vomiting (so much that you can not keep liquids down), dry mouth and throat, and feeling dizzy when standing.
Generally speaking, symptoms begin within 12-72 hours of infection. Although most cases of salmonella clear up on their own within a week, acute salmonellosis kills approximately 450 people per year, and should be taken seriously. If you suspect that you may have salmonella poisoning, you should call your doctor immediately.
What to Do If You Have Onions Affected by the Recall
According to the CDC, if you purchased onions affected by the recall, you should throw them out, as well as clean and disinfect any surfaces they may have come in contact with (such as cutting boards, knives, or storage bins). Brian Katzowitz with the CDC recommends using hot, soapy water to properly clean potentially contaminated surfaces; the FDA also recommends using separate cutting boards for meat, poultry, and produce, and running them through the dishwasher after each use.
Does Cooking Onions Kill Salmonella?
Cooking onions to 150 F will kill any potential salmonella, according to Dr. Stephen Amato, a food safety expert and the Director of Global Regulatory Affairs and Quality Assurance Programs at Northwestern University. However, that does not mean you should cook potentially infected onions. As Amato notes, it is difficult to gauge the exact temperature of cooked onions. He points out that onions are often cooked with other food items, such as meat or fish, explaining, “This can dramatically increase the minimum temperature to which the onions should be cooked in order to be safe.”
Katzowitz adds another crucial salmonella safety point: “It’s also possible to cross-contaminate other vegetables in your kitchen if you use the same cutting board or knife [to handle infected and uninfected produce].” If you have onions affected by this or any future recall, the safest course of action is to throw them out—not to risk infection from inadequate cooking. And again, be sure to properly clean and disinfect your kitchen with trusted, antibacterial products.
As of October 29, the CDC has not listed any other onions affected by the recall. However, if you feel hesitant to cook with and consume onions, you can add their pungent flavor to your meals with onion powder. As with all processed food items, double-check to ensure that the produce used to make them was not affected by this or any other recall.
How to Minimize Your Risk of Salmonella or Bacterial Infection
Consuming raw produce always carries a risk of bacterial infection. Recently, the CDC released data from the Interagency Food Safety Analytics Collaboration on the items most likely to be attributed to foodborne illness. Katzowitz notes that, “Over 75% of salmonella illnesses were attributed to seven food categories: chicken, fruits, pork, seeded vegetables (such as tomatoes), other produce (such as fungi, herbs, nuts and root vegetables), turkey and eggs.” He adds that the majority of salmonella illness is caused by chicken, which is why it’s so important to cook poultry to at least 165 F. Eggs are also a potential risk.
To keep yourself and your household safe when consuming produce, follow food safety guidelines. That means thoroughly cleaning raw produce before consuming, cooking all foods properly, and taking care to regularly disinfect all surfaces in your kitchen that come in contact with food items. Check the temperature of your refrigerator, since bacteria can thrive in environments where the temperature isn't regulated. Note that salmonella contamination cannot be detected by sight, smell, or taste. Read the labels on packaged food to minimize your risk of contamination.
Amato brings up another key consideration: The supply chains that handle food before it enters your kitchen—and not just produce growers and trucking companies. For example, he encourages consumers to consider food delivery services: “Take into account the distance that the food must travel in order to reach your door—in the winter, it’s likely that your order will be transported in a heated car, which may not be a good thing for your raw items.” (Food held at unsafe temperatures can more easily become infected with bacteria.)
The FDA has outlined a full list best practices for handling and consuming all produce on their website. While following best practices will not entirely eliminate the risk of foodborne illness, it does reduce the number of risky scenarios and possibilities for infection.