Despite recent national attention, some consumers are unaware that E.coli contamination can exist outside the beef sector.
“I didn’t know that vegetables could be contaminated with E. coli,” said Suki Chandrasekaran, a freshman microbiology major.
E. coli is continuously associated with beef, but a Spokane, Wash. area outbreak made at least 34 people sick in July and the culprit was not a hamburger; rather, romaine lettuce was to blame.
The outbreak started at a cheerleader drill camp at Eastern Washington University when participants were served a Caesar salad on the first night of camp, according to the Western Livestock Reporter. The Food and Drug Administration said one teen-ager attending cheer camp had her kidneys so badly damaged that she is now on dialysis.
Still, the bacteria affects beef most often and most notably.
A meat packing plant in Pennsylvania said Monday it recalled 203,600 pounds of fresh ground beef because of concerns it may be contaminated with E. coli. The meat had been distributed to 11 U.S. states, mostly in the Northeast. According to the company, Moyer Packing Co., based in Souderton, Pennsylvania, there have been no reports of illnesses associated with the recalled meat.
There are roughly 73,000 cases of E. coli contamination each year, causing around 60 deaths. Symptoms include bloody diarrhea, vomiting and cramps, and severe cases – usually in the elderly and young children – can lead to kidney failure and death.
The E. coli 0157:H7 strain was discovered in 1982 in ground beef. Since then, contamination has spread to many different areas, including fruits and vegetables. According to William Marler, an attorney specializing in food-borne illnesses, there have been at least 17 E. coli outbreaks related to produce since 1990.
E. coli is a common bacteria. According to the book Normal Microflora, E. coli makes up 0.1% of the total amount of bacteria in the adult intestine. The presence of E. coli within the intestines is necessary for people to function and stay healthy. E. coli bacteria allow humans to absorb necessary vitamins and digest food.
A person becomes ill when E. coli enters the bloodstream or respiratory system instead of staying in the intestines.
“There is no way to know the cause of contamination of fruits and vegetables,” said Dawn Norton, a media specialist at the Centers for Disease Control. “There are a number of ways E. coli can be transmitted from the farm to the kitchen. The best way to eliminate E. coli on vegetables is to wash them thoroughly and make sure all dirt and debris is rinsed off.”
There is no way to tell if E. coli is on a fruit or vegetable because the smell and appearance of the food is generally not affected, Norton said.
Andrea Mink, freshman pre-veterinary medicine major, didn’t know how common E. coli contamination was in vegetables but was aware of the continuous impact it had on the beef sector.
“Most people are careful (when cooking meat). The media makes a bigger deal about it than is necessary,” Mink said. “If a place didn’t cook beef correctly, it would be a small, individual mistake, not an entire industry’s fault. Vegetable contamination should receive the same coverage as beef contamination.”
Chandrasekaran agreed with Mink. “The media is biased and based on ratings. They should tell consumers the whole story instead of always attacking the beef sector,” she said.