E. Coli Outbreaks and Food Safety Tips
By Jude Buglewicz
From the Million Dollar Body Club - Join Today and Workout to
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.
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?
It's a bacterium with hundreds of harmless strains.
One strain, though, identified in 19820157:H7produces 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
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
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
The 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
- 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
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?
environment. What fertilizer(s) or manure is used? What was the land
used for previously? What about the adjacent land?
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
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
Food safety tips
So, what can you do to avoid becoming
infected with E. coli? Here's what the CDC recommends:
- Thoroughly 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
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
Drink only pasteurized
milk and juices. Juice sold at room temperature has been pasteurized,
as have most concentrates.
Wash 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.
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
And 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.
Sources: www.cdc.gov, www.fda.gov, www.who.int