Kratom users looking for a buzz, pain relief, or an opioid substitute may get more than they bargained for. On Thursday evening, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned consumers that a Salmonella outbreak that’s been traced back to the plant drug is still growing. At the beginning of March, the CDC issued its initial warning, in which doctors said that 40 people in 27 U.S. states had gotten sick. In the two weeks since then, those numbers grew to 87 people in 35 states. According to the best available CDC numbers, 27 people have been hospitalized.
Fortunately, no deaths have been reported. But the CDC’s reports bear consideration. While many of us may associate Salmonella with raw or undercooked chicken and eggs, it can also come from other food and non-food sources — such as turtles, guinea pigs, and, yes, kratom.
In addition to the initial 27 states the CDC announced on March 2, the organization announced that cases had been reported in Alaska, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, Texas, and West Virginia.
“Salmonella causes about 1.2 million illnesses, 23,000 hospitalizations, and 450 deaths in the United States every year,” reports the CDC. “Food is the source for about 1 million of these illnesses.”
As Inverse previously reported, the CDC identified the strain of Salmonella bacteria that seemed to be responsible for the first wave of kratom illnesses: Salmonella I 4,,12:b:-, a variety that has only recently emerged. In the latest case report, doctors identified a few more varieties, including Salmonella Javiana (5), Salmonella Okatie (16), or Salmonella Thompson (16). The last of these varieties is relatively rare, but no one of them is especially dangerous compared to the others.
To reach their conclusion, CDC doctors interviewed people who got sick and asked them about where they got their kratom, how they consumed it, and what brand they used. Doctors didn’t find any single producer or seller that can be blamed for the illnesses, but Portland-based PDX Aromatics has recalled its kratom products sold between January 18 and February 18.
Some critics of federal officials have criticized the CDC of spreading unnecessary fears about the plant-based drug, which some doctors say can be good for patients who are dependent on opioids or suffering from chronic pain. The Drug Enforcement Administration and the Food And Drug Administration, for their part, continue to crack down on the drug. The DEA has been trying to ban it for years, and the FDA recently warned that kratom is an opioid, a conclusion that some scientists say is based on bad science.
While some have alleged that the CDC is engaging in a kratom smear campaign, the far more likely explanation is that the unregulated herbal product, whose legal status is up in the air, is subject to similar forces that make illegal drugs dangerous or impure. Prohibition, as we saw during the Twenties in the U.S., tends to make drugs stronger and more likely to contain impurities or contaminants. Kratom isn’t illegal at the moment, but its grey legal status means that its manufacturing conditions probably aren’t as tightly controlled as pharmaceutical drugs.
In the meantime, the CDC recommends that nobody consumes kratom, since no particular seller or manufacturer’s product can be deemed safe. But if you insist on drinking kratom tea, make sure to boil it for a few minutes to kill the Salmonella.