Eighteen people have died and around 1,600 have become ill, some seriously, in Europe from an unprecedented outbreak of what’s being called a “super-toxic” strain of E. coli bacteria. At least three American who recently returned from Germany are said to be suffering from the food-borne poisoning, as well. Dr Scott Hurd, associate professor of Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine at Iowa State University who specializes in food-borne pathogens in livestock, explains the animal-based bacteria and puts the outbreak in perspective.
What is E. coli and how can it make us sick?
E. coli naturally exists in the gastrointestinal tracts of animals and humans, but sometimes a select few strains have the ability to produce a poison that can result in illness, damage the kidneys, and even cause death.
How did the European outbreak occur?
Raw tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce have been identified as possible E. coli bacteria carriers in Europe, with manure suspected as the source. Researchers still don’t know what the food vehicle is yet, so there’s no way to be sure the origin is manure but we do know that E. coli lives in warm-blooded animals, whether that be cattle, deer or humans.
E. coli doesn’t live and thrive on a plant. If it’s on a plant it’s only there as a passive bystander waiting for its next home within the gastrointestinal tract of the next warm-blooded animal or person.
How does the deadly European outbreak compare to outbreaks in the U.S.?
I don’t like to be alarmist, but this one is off the charts. This poisoning strain is surprising everyone. The most notable E. coli outbreak in the U.S. occurred in the early 90s when four children died and hundreds of others became sick in western states after eating undercooked and contaminated meat from Jack in the Box restaurants. The European outbreak is remarkable in comparison.
Should U.S. consumers be concerned about the European E. coli outbreak?
This is 18 deaths in a world of six billion people, and while the European outbreak is tragic and significant compared to other E. coli outbreaks, U.S. consumers should not be concerned. Consider, too, the possibility that this same thing may have happened 20 or 30 years ago but no one had the technology to connect the dots. While it seems new and scary, it may have been happening all along.
How can consumers protect themselves?
U.S. consumers shouldn’t be concerned about this strain impacting the nations’ produce, but should always be conscientious about practicing food safety. If you cook fruits and vegetables, you don’t have to worry, but most consumers eat them raw so wash them thoroughly, particularly leafy lettuce. Commercial produce rinses are an option. And be aware that organic produce often is fertilized with livestock manure.
E. coli exists naturally in the gastrointestinal tract of humans and animals. Dr. Hurd explains that what’s causing the tragic European outbreak are a select few E. coli bacteria:
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Dr. Hurd tells consumers how to prevent E. coli poisoning:
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