Saturday, June 4, 2011


The deadly wave of potentially lethal E.coli illness sweeping across Europe has everyone scared. That includes people in the U.S. Is there E.coli bacteria in our food as well?

The answer is "yes." But before you panic, so far that particular "Hamburg" strain of E.coli bacterium (a version of E.coli 0104) has not been isolated here (with the exception of a small outbreak in Montana, in 1994), maybe because we don't normally test for it (see previous post).

But we do have plenty of other toxic E.coli turning up, especially E.coli 0157:H7. Usually it is found in our meat, especially ground beef, but turns up in other foods as well. This is a relative of the E.coli bacterium in Europe. It can also cause bloody diarrhea, and result in HUS complications, but has a different genetic makeup, and is not quite as deadly. Also, unlike the European strain, the most serious illnesses usually occur in children - not adults.

Let's take a look at outbreaks of this E.coli in our food during the past six months (December, 2010-May 31, 2011). On May 31 (just a few days ago), a Michigan firm recalled close to a thousand pounds of ground beef products it had sent out to restaurants because E.coli 0157:H7 was found in it. Six days earlier, a major retailer in Georgia had to recall hundreds of pounds of ground beef for the same reason. In early March, a retailer in Kansas, had to recall seven tons of beef products (that is a lot of meat) again because of E.coli 0157:H7. And there was still another recall of ground beef a month before that, in which case the products were again sent to restaurants throughout California. And, another couple of recalls in December, originating with in firms in Texas and in California.

The average - one sizeable recall a month over the last six months - that we know of. Not all instances are caught. And not all that are caught are reported. And, I may have missed one or two on this list.

Nor is E.coli 0157:H7 contamination in the U.S. limited to meat. In the past six months, we also had this bacterium turn up in hazelnuts imported from Canada, of all things (very unusual - see post of March 7). Then there was also that large and embarrassing recall of Sally Jackson (Wisconsin) cheese last December. Whole Foods Market had to do a recall of its own, because it was selling them to its health-conscious customers. Meanwhile, during December and January there was still an ongoing recall of bagged salads contaminated with E.coli 0157:H7 (distributed by Fresh Express, of Salinas California) and of another cheese although they had started earlier.

So we have enough on our hands with toxic E.coli 0157:H7 in our food. Let's hope it doesn't decide to mutate and pick up some nasty features of another more deadly bacterium, as did the E.coli 0104 in Europe.

To your good health!


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