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Food Safety

E. Coli Outbreaks and Food Safety Tips

By Jude Buglewicz
From the Million Dollar Body Club - Join Today and Workout to Win!

Let's talk spinach. What the heck happened last month; what is the government doing about it; and what can you do to ensure your food is safe? Keep reading for some timely answers.

What happened?

SpinachIt was an official outbreak, declared so by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on September 14th. The first reported illness from bad spinach came on August 2nd. By September 29th, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 187 lab-tested cases had been counted in 26 states (and 1 in Canada), with most illnesses having been reported between August 26th and September 12th. Twenty-nine people developed hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), a kind of kidney failure. One person in Wisconsin died. The CDC reports that two others have died (a two-year-old child in Idaho and an elderly woman from Maryland), but since there is no proof their deaths are from the outbreak strain, they are not included in the mortality count.

Everyone got sick from eating bagged spinach that was traced back to farms for Natural Selections Foods in the Salinas Valley of California. Five companies that made bagged spinach, including Natural Selections, announced voluntary recalls between September 15th and 22nd. Spinach pretty much disappeared from grocery store shelves around then. And even though bagged spinach was deemed okay if it came from some place other than one of the three implicated California counties, it didn't look like anyone was taking chances. At least not in the grocery stores in my neighborhood in Los Angeles. And who could blame them? Of the 19 outbreaks involving contaminated lettuce and leafy greens reported by the FDA since 1995, most were traced back to California. And all were caused by Escherichia coliE. coli, for short.

What is E. coli?

E. coli and spinachIt's a bacterium with hundreds of harmless strains. One strain, though, identified in 1982—0157:H7—produces a toxin that can make you very sick. In fact, it's responsible for infecting 73,000 people each year and killing 81. It lives in the intestines of healthy animals, but the main source is cattle. Besides unsanitary slaughtering processes (which have greatly improved in recent years), the increased use of grain to feed cattle (corn fattens them up more quickly), has had negative effects on the animals' digestive systems, depriving them of needed fiber, nutrients, and microorganisms. Researchers have found that grain-fed diets promote E. coli in the digestive tracts of cattle, whereas grass-fed cattle are less likely to be vehicles of transmission (as Steve mentions in his article on organic food above). In fact, the vast majority of E. coli cases in this country occur after eating undercooked contaminated hamburger, though people can also get sick from contaminated lettuce, spinach, sprouts, and unpasteurized milk and juices, as well as from swimming in or drinking contaminated water.

On average, it takes about 3 to 4 days after being exposed to E. coli for a person to become sick. Symptoms include diarrhea, often bloody, and abdominal cramping, but most people get better without treatment in 5 to 10 days. Some, however (especially children under 5 and the elderly), develop HUS, a condition in which their red blood cells are destroyed and their kidneys fail. About 3 to 5 percent of HUS patients die.

If your symptoms are severe after eating ground beef, spinach, lettuce, or another known transmitter of E. coli, get to a health provider and have your stool tested. It's recommended that you not take antibiotics, as they will not improve your condition and some may even lead to kidney problems. You should also avoid antidiarrheal medicines, like Imodium.

It's not so hard to understand how eating a rare hamburger can get you sick. After all, E. coli lives in cow guts. But how in the world does it get into spinach?

The chain of production and distribution

Wash vegetablesThe FDA thinks that this latest E. coli contamination happened early in the distribution chain, since so many states were affected. It's currently investigating Natural Selections Foods in San Juan Bautista, California, and the nine farms that supply it. Most likely, the FDA is looking into the six areas of concern they highlighted in their 1998 Guide to Minimize Microbial Contamination of Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, known also as the Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs):

  • Agricultural water. What is the source of irrigation? Where does the water come from?

  • Wild and domestic animals. Which animals have access to or roam the agricultural area?

  • Worker health and hygiene. Since E. coli is also spread by infected people with poor hand-washing habits, are there clean bathroom facilities for workers and have they been properly trained in hygiene?

  • Production environment. What fertilizer(s) or manure is used? What was the land used for previously? What about the adjacent land?

  • Post-harvest water quality. What is the quality of the water used in cooling processes or washing produce? Where does the water come from?

  • Sanitation of equipment and facilities. Is the farm and processing equipment kept clean and sanitized?

The FDA, CDC, State of California, and the United States Department of Agriculture have joined forces to investigate the outbreak and come up with safer measures for preventing foodborne infections and quick methods of identifying and responding to outbreaks. Right now, the produce industry isn't regulated, though most companies follow voluntary guidelines. More cases of infection will probably be added to the current total before this outbreak ends, as it will take a couple of weeks yet to test any new potential victims and get results. Meanwhile, California growers are scared. Almost 75 percent of all domestically grown spinach is harvested there. Restoring consumer confidence is going to be difficult. It's already been speculated that California growers could lose up to $74 million.

Food safety tips

So, what can you do to avoid becoming infected with E. coli? Here's what the CDC recommends:

  • Tofu burgerThoroughly cook ground beef until several places tested reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit. You can't just go by the meat's color, as hamburger browns quickly, but can still contain harmful bacteria. At restaurants, send back hamburgers that are still pink in the middle for further cooking.

  • Keep raw meat separate from other foods when you're preparing meals. Do not use the same cutting board for meat and produce. Wash cutting boards with clean, soapy water.

  • Drink only pasteurized milk and juices. Juice sold at room temperature has been pasteurized, as have most concentrates.

  • VeggiesWash fruits and veggies under running water. This still won't get rid of all the bacteria, so if you want to reduce that risk entirely, with spinach especially, steam it for a few minutes or boil it for at least 30 seconds.

  • Drink chlorinated water. Chlorine kills much of the harmful bacteria present in water. (Read Steve Edwards' article "What's in Your Water?" for more information on why your municipal water could be a safer bet than that expensive imported stuff.)

  • Wash your hands. Make sure you and your children practice good hygiene to reduce the risk of spreading infections.

Wash your handsAnd don't forget the World Health Organization's reminder to keep foods at safe temperatures to slow the growth of microorganisms.

  • Safe temps. Don't store food for more than 2 hours at room temperature. Refrigerate perishable foods promptly and keep cooked foods hot before serving. Go through your refrigerator periodically and throw away anything past its expiration date. Finally, don't thaw frozen food at room temperature.


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