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E. coli Outbreak: Questions & Answers

Information From Food Safety Expert and CDC About E. coli Outbreak and Fresh Produce
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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 complication.

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 CDC.

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 answers.

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.

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