Linda Benedict, Merrill, Thomas A.
The recent outbreak of foodborne illness traced to fresh spinach should serve as a reminder for taking food safety measures every day, according to LSU AgCenter nutritionist Beth Reames.
“Although our food supply basically is safe, occasionally there are problems,” Reames said. “We can’t prevent them all, but that’s the goal of research on foodborne illness.”
An estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illness and about 5,000 deaths occur in the United States each year, Reames said.
The recent nationwide outbreak of foodborne illness caused by E. coli 0157 has been traced to spinach grown in three California counties and packaged fresh in bags.
“E. coli are bacteria that normally live in the intestines of animals, including humans,” Reames said. “Most strains are harmless, but several of them can cause mild to serious disease.”
The strain called E. coli O157:H7, the source of the recent epidemic, often causes severe watery and then bloody diarrhea. That usually occurs within two to three days after exposure but may occur as early as one day or up to a week after exposure, Reames said.
Some people, especially young children and the elderly, can develop Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome as a result of exposure to E. coli O157:H7. That condition can lead to serious kidney damage and even death.
“Since 1995, authorities have identified several outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 infection associated with contaminated lettuce or other leafy greens,” Reames said.
Outbreaks also have been associated with undercooked or raw hamburger, alfalfa sprouts, unpasteurized fruit juices, game meat, dry-cured salami, cheese curds and raw milk.
“Food can become unsafe to eat at any step in the process – where it’s grown, during packaging or when it is prepared for eating,” Reames said.
Although E. coli is among the toughest foodborne pathogens, most of the common foodborne illnesses can be prevented by following these safety rules:
(This article was published in the fall 2006 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)