Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

The E. coli Outbreak – Fear of Fresh

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HAMBURG, GERMANY - JUNE 02:  A lab technician ...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife


The recent food poisoning outbreak in Europe with a particular virulent strain of Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria brings to mind past outbreaks in the U.S. a couple of years ago that involved spinach, melons, and lettuce as well as alfalfa sprouts.  As of this writing, the news is that the source has yet to be identified and that the previous alleged source of cucumbers has been discounted. Besides being more virulent and lethal, the strain that emerged in Germany a month ago resists a dozen antibiotics.

It appears to be riskier to eat produce these days. Germany, the focus of the outbreak, warns consumers to not eat raw fruits or vegetables at the present time since this outbreak has resulted in 18 deaths so far.

We now eat our salad greens packed in a bag and of course we don’t cook them, blanch them, and sometime not even wash them (after all they are prewashed, right?)  The prewashed produce is a great idea if the contamination does not occur at their points of origin.  Now days we don’t get our greens from just one head or a bunch of spinach or lettuce, we get them from many different plants.  If one of those plants is contaminated, then the whole bag can become contaminated very quickly.  Every bacterium has a specific generation or doubling time.  E. coli, for example, can double in numbers every 20 minutes.  One bacterium that divides every half hour can produce 17 million progeny in 12 hours.

Where do these bacteria come from?  Cattle especially from feedlots are the main reservoir for E. coli, the family of intestine-dwelling bacteria from which the new bug comes. If the produce farm is in close proximity to a feedlot, the bacteria can be washed downstream or downhill to the crops.

Washing salad greens is recommended but it’s hard to get bacteria off of prepackaged products.  Both conventional and organic farming practices have problems with contamination.  The good news is that food borne illnesses have declined over the last ten years.  The bad news is that there seems to be more frequent outbreaks from raw fruits and vegetables than occurred 20-30 years ago.

About 3 to 8 percent get the severest type of E. coli food poisoning – hemolytic uremic syndrome or HUS.  The most affected are children and the elderly.  HUS can result in kidney failure and red blood cells in the body look like they have been through a blender. The toxin produced by the bacteria damages blood vessels by creating small strands across the insides, so when the red blood cells go though them, they are just chopped up.  So the treatment is dialysis and transfusions.  Even with intensive care, 3-5% of these patients die.

Antibiotics do not really help – it can often make matters worse.  When the bacteria cells are killed they release more of their toxin they produce.  Consumers should stay informed about the sources of any outbreaks in general.  Illness can result in consuming only 100 of the bacteria.

What are some common sense rules regarding food safety?

  • Of course keeping food in the refrigerator stops the growth of most bacteria.  There are exceptions like Listeria found in soft cheeses, lunch meats and hot dogs and a Yersinia species found in undercooked pork and unpasteurized milk.
  • Buy fresh-cut produce like half a watermelon that has been placed on ice.  Scrub the outside of whole melons – cutting them can deliver the bacteria to the inside of the fruit.
  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap before preparing any food.
  • Use separate cutting boards for meats and fresh produce to avoid cross contamination.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables under running water just before eating, cutting, or cooking.  Don’t use soap (it will leave a residue).  Produce washes are okay, but they do not guarantee the removal of bacteria.
  • Remove the outer leaves of leafy vegetable heads like cabbage and lettuce.
  • Don’t eat raw sprouts (alfalfa, bean, clover, or radish)
  • Leftover Rules
    • 2 hours from oven to refrigerator – refrigerate or freeze within 2 hours of cooking.
    • 2 inches thick to cool– store food in a shallow depth container – about 2 inches.
    • 4 days maximum in the refrigerator for any food except for stuffing or gravy which has a 2-day limit.
    • Reheat solid leftovers to 165 degrees F and liquid leftovers to a rolling boil.  Toss what is not eaten.

Food safety is not emphasized enough to the consumer.   Maybe people just don’t realize how devastating a bacterial or viral infection of the intestines can be due to complications that may result even after the initial illness has been resolved.  Recalls from bacterial contamination occur every week.  It’s important to not be paranoid over eating foods, but to be aware and vigilant against often-preventable illnesses by using safe food practices in the home.

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