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E. coli, the European Outbreak, and What it Means for Your Food

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Killer cukes: cucumbers initially blamed for the worst E. coli outbreak in human history.

Over the past two weeks you may have noticed various news agencies, as well as Matt Drudge, collectively flipping out about an E. coli outbreak in Europe. Centered in Germany, the outbreak has broken records, and not in a good way. As far as E. coli outbreaks go, this is the worst on record. With more than 3,000 people infected over the past few weeks, and 25 deaths, this outbreak already stands as the worst ever recorded in terms of number of people sickened, as well as deaths. This particular type of E. coli is known as a STEC, or Shiga-Toxin producing E. coli.

These kinds of E. coli set up shop in your gut, and then produce a nasty toxin which causes several shades of discomfort. Particularly dangerous strains, like this most recent one, will go on to damage vital organs like the liver and kidneys. These strains, or serotypes, are capable of causing conditions like hemorrhagic colitis and HUS (hemolytic uremic syndrome). The latter, HUS, is particularly nasty and involves exploding red blood cells (hemolytic anemia), and acute kidney failure. At least 16 of the 25 deaths reported so far have been due to these HUS-induced kidney failures, with another 600+ hospitalized with these complications.

Despite the virulence of the bug, what was more amazing (at least to me) was the source. While the Germans still haven’t figured out where the contamination originated (and they’re getting a ton of justifiable criticism for that fact), so far they have blamed Spanish cucumbers, lettuce, and/or tomatoes, only to retract those accusations and blame sprouts from a German farm. Sprouts! Spanish vegetable farmers are suddenly finding no one wants their produce. Russia has banned all vegetable imports from Europe. Clearly, the consequences of some bad sprouts/cucumbers/whatever are reaching far and wide, and people’s livelihoods are being destroyed in the process.

If you are anything like me and only kind of plugged-in to the wild world of food safety and foodborne illnesses, the idea of being sickened by eating some sprouts seems a bit strange. I always think of E. coli as coming from undercooked meat, or bad burgers from some gross fast food restaurant with roaches in the kitchen. I don’t tend to see vegetables, especially ones so innocuous as cucumbers, as being carriers of disease and death. So I went and did some digging.

According to the CDC, between 1998 and 2007 there were 334 outbreaks of E. coli in the US alone. The vast majority of these infections were caused by eating contaminated food products. Sure enough, contaminated beef is the number one cause of E. coli poisoning in the US. However, something else jumps out. Between 1998 and 2002, leafy vegetables were 1/3 as often the source of E. coli outbreaks compared to ground beef. However, between 2003 and 2007, there were equal numbers of E. coli outbreaks caused by contaminated leafy vegetables as caused by contaminated ground beef.

This is astonishing, given that the E. coli that makes us sick almost always comes from cows. So how is intestinal bovine E. coli making its way onto our vegetables? The reason appears to be manure. That’s right, poop. More specifically, cow poop. It’s used as a fertilizer worldwide, which means that E. coli-laced cow manure is spread on land used to grow our tasty vegetables. These vegetables then pick up the bug, which is quite hardy and capable of living on a vegetable’s surface for weeks, and is sent to markets near and far. So what does this mean for your food?

Well, it means being careful. I have included a good list of how to reduce the chances for E. coli infection from potentially contaminated vegetables.

  • Wash everything thoroughly. Use tap water, and your hands! Don’t just rinse, wash the produce. The friction from your hands rubbing across the leaves or skin of the produce will drastically reduce bacterial contamination compared to just rinsing alone. This is the same reason why surgeons scrub for so long before operating.
  • Don’t use soap or bleach on your fruits or veggies. Cool tap water, especially if its been treated, will serve just fine.
  • Don’t mix raw meat with anything else during preparation. Be vigilant that any surface that raw meat has touched is thoroughly washed before anything else comes into contact with it. Best practice is to prepare meat separately from produce, with separate utensils.
  • Use common sense at the store. Don’t buy anything slimy, shriveled, or foul-smelling. Even if it’s packaged, take a look at it. If you see slime, it’s not worth a dime!
  • Don’t let your produce sit out. Fresh veggies should go straight to the crisper in the fridge. Discard any cut produce if it has been sitting out of the fridge for 4 hours or more. Throw away any produce that has been sitting in your fridge too long.

If you follow these suggestions, you can significantly reduce your chances of acquiring a foodborne illness from your favorite vegetables. Knowing that vegetables are just as likely to be the source of an E. coli outbreak will make me think twice about eating a tomato without washing it first. (Throw a little sea salt on it and you have a perfect, cool, and refreshing afternoon snack during the summer!)

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  • It’s hardly alarmist. There’s no warning against eating vegetables, or demonizing the farmers who grow them. Vegetable farmers are a vital part of our food supply. Some people take precautions with their meat products to avoid foodborne illness, and given that vegetables are just as likely to cause an E. coli outbreak, those same kinds of people might want some advice for how to treat their vegetables the same way. Especially since vegetables are a growing source of E. coli infection. This article was for them, as well as anyone who wanted to learn a little more about E. coli outbreaks.

  • Leroy

    Good article. Thanks for the info.