E. coli Outbreak: Questions & Answers
Information From Food Safety Expert and CDC About E. coli Outbreak and Fresh Produce
Sept. 15, 2006 -- The FDA is warning consumers not to eat bagged fresh
spinach as it probes a multistate outbreak of E. coli linked to at least one
death and scores of illnesses.
The warning currently applies to all bagged fresh spinach, regardless of
whether it was conventionally or organically grown.
Here are three questions and answers about E. coli, based on information
from the CDC:
Q. What is E. coli?
A. E. coli is a bacterium. There are hundreds of strains of E. coli. The
strain involved in the current outbreak is E. coli 0157:H7.
Q. What are the health risks of E. coli 0157:H7?
This strain of E. coli can cause abdominal cramping and diarrhea, often with bloody
stools. Most adults recover fully in about a week.
But it can also lead to a serious complication called hemolytic uremic
syndrome (HUS) which causes kidney failure.
Young children and the elderly are at particular risk for this
Q. How common are E. coli outbreaks?
This particular strain of E. coli causes an estimated 61 deaths and 73,000
cases of infection in the U.S. annually, according to the CDC.
Most past infections have been linked to undercooked ground beef.
Other culprits have been sprouts, lettuce, salami, unpasteurized milk and
juice, and swimming in or drinking sewage-contaminated water, according to the
Perspective of a Food Safety Expert
WebMD also spoke with Richard H. Linton, PhD, a professor of food safety and
director of the Center for Food Safety Engineering at Purdue University.
Following are eight questions about bagged fresh produce and Linton's
Q. Should all bagged fresh produce be avoided?
A. No. We're just talking about spinach at this point in time.
Q. Should all bagged fresh produce be washed at home, even if it says "prewashed"?
A. I think there's a very minimal effect in what a consumer can do from a
washing standpoint, other than what was done at a manufacturing facility.
Normally, these things are triple-washed at a manufacturing facility. We can
recommend to consumers that they have an additional wash, but as a scientist, I
can tell you the effect will be minimal.
Q. But there's no reason not to do another wash at home?
A. There's no reason not to, no. But the reason that FDA is asking for all
of these products to come back is that they recognize that the washing step, if
the organism was present, is not 100% effective.
Q. What about once this outbreak is resolved? Is it a good idea to get in the habit of doing another rinse at home?
A. I think it's one small level of assurance that consumers can use, but it
is in no way a guarantee. I think it's a very minimal effect, and I don't want
consumers to believe that their washing is going to take care of all of the
problems for a fresh-cut product that's been bagged.
Certainly, that recommendation is very important for a product that's not
packaged -- for a product that's in its whole state. Consumers can really make
a difference in the wash.