The Facts About E. Coli

ivvga executive director kay pricola

 

Recently and for the second time this year, E.Coli was in the news –and linked to my favorite, Romaine lettuce.  The growers in Imperial Valley take food safety seriously and these two events in one year hurt the industry.  While neither of the outbreaks were linked to our growing area, the impact to our farm workers, our farmers, and the local economy is painful. 

We would like to use the story to educate the public about food borne outbreaks and those related to E. Coli in particular.  Let’s start with definition of an “outbreak” When two or more people get the same illness from the same contaminated food or drink, the event is called a food-borne disease outbreak. The Center for Disease Control started tracking multistate food-borne outbreak investigations involving E. coli in 2006 For a complete listing of reported outbreaks please use the Foodborne Outbreak Online Database (FOOD) tool.

 
 
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Public health officials investigate outbreaks to control them, so that more people do not get sick and to learn how to prevent similar outbreaks in the future.

The outbreak in March, linked to the similar growing area in Arizona. That outbreak hit 36 states and resulted in five deaths. Officials could narrow the source to one region thanks to seasonal growing patterns.  What remains unknown, other that the area is the growing conditions that created the outbreak.  The second outbreak, linked to Romaine Lettuce was identified from harvest between October 8 and October 31, the blanket advisory issued November 20, 2018.  That blanket advisory was amended on November 26, 2018, allow our area which had just start harvest just a few days prior to November 20, 2018 advisory to resume harvesting.  This October outbreak hit 12 states with no reported deaths. 

While some us here know the growing patterns, the general public does not. The voluntary labeling by region and harvest date will help the public identify better the source of the produce.  The cost of this additional label could be initially a $0.75 a case and as it become the norm, the cost could drop.  It is well worth the cost to have a better educated consumer. 

So, we understand that an outbreak is two or more ill person linked to the same food or drink. Time for that science many of us wish to avoid—just what is E. Coli? 

 
 
Broccolini

Broccolini

 

Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria normally live in the intestines of people and animals. Most E. coli are harmless and actually are an important part of a healthy human intestinal tract. However, some E. coli are pathogenic, meaning they can cause illness, either diarrhea or illness outside of the intestinal tract. The types of E. coli that can cause diarrhea can be transmitted through contaminated water or food, or through contact with animals or persons.

E. coli consists of a diverse group of bacteria. Pathogenic E. coli strains are categorized into pathotypes. Six pathotypes are associated with diarrhea and collectively are referred to as diarrheagenic E. coli.

Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC)—STEC may also be referred to as Verocytotoxin-producing E. coli (VTEC) or enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC). This pathotype is the one most commonly heard about in the news in association with foodborne outbreaks.

  • People usually get sick from Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) 2–8 days (average of 3–4 days) after swallowing the germ.

  • Some people with a STEC infection may get a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).

  • E. coli infection is usually diagnosed by testing a stool sample.

  • Antibiotics are not recommended for patients with suspected E. coli infections until diagnostic testing can be performed and E. coli infection is ruled out. Some studies have shown that administering antibiotics to patients with E. coli infections might increase their risk of developing HUS, and a benefit of treatment has not been clearly demonstrated.

 
 
 
 

Ok, we have now covered based dictionary and science stuff.  Let’s get down to what you should do short of giving up foods that you should be eating.

  • Know your chances of getting food poisoning. People with higher chances for food-borne illness are pregnant women, newborns, children, older adults, and those with weak immune systems, such as people with cancer, diabetes, or HIV/AIDS.

  • Practice proper hygiene, especially good hand-washing

  • Wash your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom and changing diapers.

  • Wash your hands thoroughly before and after preparing or eating food.

  • Wash your hands thoroughly after contact with animals or their environments (at farms, petting zoos, fairs, even your own backyard).

  • Wash your hands thoroughly before preparing and feeding bottles or foods to an infant or toddler, before touching an infant or toddler’s mouth, and before touching pacifiers or other things that go into an infant or toddler’s mouth.

  • Keep all objects that enter infants’ and toddlers’ mouths (such as pacifiers and teethers) clean.

  • If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol (check the product label to be sure). These alcohol-based products can quickly reduce the number of germs on hands in some situations, but they are not a substitute for washing with soap and running water.

  • Follow the four steps to food safety when preparing food: clean, separate, cook, and chill.

  • Wash fruits and vegetables well under running water, unless the package says the contents have already been washed. My personal advice, if you are in a high-risk group, wash it anyway. 

  • Cook meats thoroughly:

  • To kill harmful germs, cook beef steaks and roasts to an internal temperature of at least 145°F (62.6˚C) and allow to rest for 3 minutes after you remove meat from the grill or stove.

  • Cook ground beef and pork to a minimum internal temperature of 160°F (70˚C).

  • Always use a food thermometer to check that the meat has reached a safe internal temperature because you can’t tell whether meat is safely cooked by looking at its color (unless you are Chico at Stockmen’s).

  • Don’t cause cross-contamination in food preparation areas. Thoroughly wash hands, counters, cutting boards, and utensils after they touch raw meat.

  • Avoid raw milk, unpasteurized daily products and unpasteurized juices, such as fresh apple cider.

  • Don’t swallow water when swimming and when playing in lakes, ponds, streams, swimming pools, and backyard “kiddie” pools. This includes canals.     I know I will hear from all you who swam in a canal here and lived.   This is advice from the CDC. 

As stated in other articles, we are fortunate to have so many local growers and shippers here who are responsible and caring people. We have you and your family’s health at the forefront of any food safety protocol. And yes, I had romaine lettuce in the refrigerator prior to the November 20, 2018 CDC notice which was likely from the end of the season rotation for the California Central Coast. And yes, we had a Cesar salad during the Thanksgiving holidays and finally, no I was not sick.  Sometime I am luckier than smart.

 

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