Read More:Cheese Sold at Costco Tainted with E. coli
I don't know about you, but when I think high-quality gourmet cheese, Costco immediately comes to mind. Not only does it taste great, but you can use the other 999 blocks that came in the case to build a nice shed in your backyard.
Read More:Cheese Sold at Costco Tainted with E. coli
I’m a huge proponent of grass-fed beef, from birth to market (not finished on grains). Cows, biologically, are created to graze on grass – not feast on nutrient-poor grains. Grain-fed beef is the result of large agribusinesses wanting to fatten up cows as quickly as possible, regardless of the harm it does to their health (not to mention how grain diminishes the nutritional quality of the meat consumers wind up eating!).
Another reason I love grass-fed beef is that it’s simply cleaner.
Feedlot cattle stand all day long in dirt and manure. You can imagine how much harder it is to remove all the fecal contamination given that scenario.
Pasture-raised animals are much easier to clean “because they come from small herds raised in relatively clean pastures,” according to Meat Marketing and Technology’s associate editor. Most U.S. cattle, he said, “are raised in far larger numbers in congested and typically less sanitary feed lots.”1
The E. coli Question
E. coli contamination occurs when manure from an animal comes in contact with meat in the slaughterhouse. The less manure on an animal when it enters the slaughter house, the less likely the meat will become contaminated.
Some studies show that grass-feeding (vs. grain feeding) may reduce the number and acidity of E. coli in the digestive tract of cattle.
Another study shows that E. coli from grass-fed cattle is more likely to be killed by the natural acidity of our digestive tract and therefore might be less likely to survive and make us ill. The reason for the greater persistence of E. coli from grain-fed cattle, the researchers speculated, is that feeding grain to cattle makes their digestive tracts abnormally acidic. Over time, the E. coli in their systems become acclimated to this acid environment. When we ingest them, a high percentage will survive the acid shock of our digestive juices. By contrast, few E. coli from grass-fed cattle will survive because they have not become acid-resistant.2
Science and the Senate: HR 2749
Time after time, scientific evidence proves that it’s industrialized animals that spread E.Coli 0157:H7 and Salmonella. Let’s hope that the senate, who will soon be voting on HR 2749 – the so-called Food Safety Enhancement Act – take these types of facts into consideration.
1“The Future of Food Safety,” by Joshua Lipsky. Meat Marketing and Technology, April 2001
2 Russell and Diez-Gonzalez (Microbes Infect 2, No. 1 (2000): 45-53.)Read More:Don’t Eat Dirty Meat!
The FDA has narrowed its investigation of the E. coli outbreak to the shredded lettuce served in meals at Taco Bell restaurants in northeastern states.
At press time, 71 cases of infection have been reported in five states: Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and South Carolina (but the lone patient there ate at a Pennsylvania Taco Bell). The number of new cases has declined substantially, the CDC notes.
FDA investigators are further expediting their review of the fast-food chain’s records so they can trace the lettuce’s distribution channels and identify the farm(s) where the lettuce was grown, as well as all firms and facilities that handled the product between harvest and delivery.
So, is organic lettuce safe to eat?
The FDA has no indication that the lettuce served at any other restaurant or venue is connected to this outbreak. While another outbreak has been reported at Taco John’s restaurants in Iowa and Minnesota, the FDA is monitoring these cases, but the agency does not believe the two outbreaks are related. In fact, the CDC has officially stated “this outbreak was clearly linked to Taco Bell restaurants in the northeastern United States” and that shredded lettuce consumed at the locations in question is “the most likely source of the outbreak.”
Contamination “likely occurred before reaching the restaurants,” the CDC reports. “Health officials and the restaurant chain are working collaboratively to learn more about the shredded lettuce to determine how it may have become contaminated.”
While green onions were initially thought to be the culprit, confirmatory FDA tests did not indicate the presence of E. coli.
Map courtesy of the CDCRead More:Lettuce the Likely Source in E. Coli Outbreak
To eat green onions or not to eat green onions? With apologies to Hamlet, that has been the question as another E. coli outbreak makes the news. But scallions may not be the culprit, as the first wave of headlines reported.
As of Monday, 64 cases of E. coli associated with the Taco Bell restaurant outbreak have been reported to the CDC. Five states are affected: New Jersey (28 cases), New York (22), Pennsylvania (11), Delaware (2) and South Carolina (1, but the patient ate at a Pennsylvania Taco Bell). Other cases are still under investigation. And while green onions have been blamed for the outbreak, “no specific food has been implicated yet,” the CDC notes.
Taco Bell, however, has voluntarily removed green onions from its U.S. restaurants. Preliminary tests had revealed the possible presence of E. coli O157:H7 in green onion samples, but the results have not been confirmed by government tests. A sample of chopped white onions collected on Dec. 4 from an open bin in a Taco Bell restaurant in Nassau County, NY, tested positive for E. coli O157:H7, but it appears to be a different strain from the one that has caused illness. The FDA is exploring the possibility of other tainted ingredients, including cilantro, cheddar cheese, blended cheese, yellow onions, tomatoes and lettuce, and green onions will undergo additional tests.
Meanwhile, Taco Bell has changed its produce supplier, pulling orders from Oxnard, Calif.-based Boskovich Farms. The grower defends its practices, noting that “the safety of consumers is our top priority, and we are committed to continued cooperation with all agencies as they try to determine the cause of this tragic situation. Other packs of green onions sold for retail, wholesale and foodservice packages, bunched and iceless, are grown in a different region and are not in question regarding the recent illnesses.”
So, welcome to the brave new world of feeding yourself, where grocery shopping and dining out occasionally feel like a game of Russian roulette. For me, buying locally grown organic produce and fresh artisanal cheese never looked better.Read More:Crying Over Onions?
Ask Dr. Sam Beattie about the recent E. coli outbreak, and he’ll tell you that we live in a “microbial ocean.”
“Microorganisms are literally everywhere, including on and inside of us, and most of the food that we eat,” says the assistant professor of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University.
“Fortunately,” he continues, “most do not make us ill; however, there are viruses, bacteria and parasites that will do so. Bacteria are found in the soil in which the food is grown, the water that it is irrigated with, the feces and hands of those that harvest and handle it, animals that pass through and over the fields leave their waste, pests that eat it or live on it, containers that hold food during transit to processing, and almost everywhere through processing.”
Processing cannot eliminate bacteria in fresh foods.
“Bacteria are tough to kill,” Dr. Beattie explains. “During the growing and processing of precut fruits or bagged leafy vegetables, there are several steps that are designed to reduce or eliminate many of the bacteria, but the processing steps must be mild enough to avoid destruction of the produce. So, there may be some residual bacteria present on the food. If the food was contaminated by an illness-causing bacteria or virus, like other organisms, they may not be completely eliminated by the processing. It is important to prevent these bacteria from growing.”
Dr. Beattie believes prepackaged foods are as safe as most other fresh foods, but it is important to examine how much handling occurs.
“More hand contact may increase the risk of fecal contamination of the food by the handler,” he says. “Indeed, the leading cause of foodborne illness is a virus that is transmitted by human-stool contamination of the food. Also, temperature abuse of any fresh food will increase the potential for illness-causing bacteria to grow. Cold is the key for precut or bagged produce.”
The recent strain of E. coli seems to be particularly infectious, Dr. Beattie notes. Only 10 to 100 organisms may be needed to make a person ill.
“In most healthy adults, the illness runs its course in about eight days,” he says. “Young children and the elderly may have very severe complications that include anemia and kidney failure, fever and neurological issues. This is why it is so important to feed kids well-cooked meats and pasteurized juices.”
If you practice organic living, you’re likely to be more aware of food issues, so share this important info with your family, friends and colleagues.Read More:Food Safety Update (Part 3)
Organic consumers aren’t the only Americans who are concerned about the safety of our nation’s food supply.
Almost two-thirds of U.S. adults (63%) are extremely or very concerned with the cleanliness of the restaurants in which they eat, which translates to approximately 140 million adults. Many are also worried about the safety of food purchased in grocery stores (52%), the quality of community drinking water (51%), the healthfulness of ingredients in the foods they eat (44%) and the origin of the fresh produce they consume (41%). In all of these cases, women are more likely to be concerned than men, and adults 35 and older are more likely to be concerned than those 18–34.
These are some of the results of an online survey conducted by Harris Interactive between Oct. 10 and 12, shortly after a multi-state E. coli outbreak linked to bagged spinach.
Almost all adults surveyed (96%) said they were at least somewhat familiar with the outbreak; 35% were extremely or very familiar with it. Among those who were at least somewhat familiar, the grocery item most associated with the outbreak was prepackaged fresh spinach sold in a bag or plastic box (83%). Other items mentioned included fresh spinach sold loose (40%), prepackaged fresh lettuce (30%) and fresh lettuce sold by the head (19%).
“Food safety has been a growing concern for the past 10 years, and it continues to be an important issue to consumers,” says Parker Hurlburt, vice president of Harris Interactive’s Consumer Packaged Goods Research Practice. “Although the E. coli outbreak was due only to affected spinach, many consumers took a ‘better safe than sorry’ attitude and stopped eating lettuce, as well. We also have seen this concern translate itself into increased interest in organic and locally grown foods.”
About 40% of those who associated a particular item with the outbreak said they stopped eating it (prepackaged spinach, 42%; prepackaged lettuce, 41%; lettuce sold by the head, 41%; and loose spinach, 39%).Read More:Food Safety Update (Part 2)
E. coli is back in the news this week, as 22 people have become ill (two seriously) in an outbreak tied to three Taco Bell restaurants in New Jersey.
Fourteen cases in Long Island, NY, have also been reported, according to the Associated Press, and authorities are trying to determine whether the two outbreaks are related. Ten of the New York victims had eaten at the fast-food chain, AP reports.
Food safety has been on the media’s back burner since Nov. 15, when Robert E. Brackett, PhD, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, testified before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions about the recent E. coli outbreak linked to fresh spinach. While he assured senators that “ensuring the safety of the food supply continues to be a top priority for FDA and the administration,” it remains clear that the agency doesn’t have the manpower or resources to conduct adequate inspections.
“In view of this recent E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, and after discussions with industry, FDA and the State of California advised the industry to develop a plan to minimize the risk of another outbreak in all leafy greens, including lettuce,” Dr. Brackett testified. “Once we have completed our current investigation, FDA will hold a public meeting to address the larger issue of foodborne illness linked to leafy greens.
“We will also be examining whether improvements in the following four areas could help prevent or contain future outbreaks: 1) strategies to prevent contamination; 2) ways to minimize the health impact after an occurrence; 3) ways to improve communication; and 4) specific research. We also will be holding a series of meetings with industry groups to discuss ways to improve the safety of fresh produce. As part of our evaluation, we will consider whether additional guidance and/or additional regulations are necessary.”
This, unfortunately, is merely a start. Advising industry to “develop a plan to minimize the risk of another outbreak” lacks regulatory teeth. We deserve more. Consumers of organic and conventionally grown produce should press the new Congress for greater oversight of our food supply.
Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 of this series.Read More:Food Safety Update (Part 1)
It’s unfortunate that the recent E. coli outbreak may have prompted Americans to cut back on their vegetable consumption, particularly salads. A recent study conducted by the UCLA School of Public Health reveals less than 50% of the U.S. population meets daily dietary recommendations for fresh produce.
Eating just one salad a day provides even greater health benefits than previously thought, note UCLA’s experts, whose research was published in the September issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
According to the study:
Some Organic Authority recipes to get you started:
The FDA and the California Department of Health Services have identified the source of the E. coli-tainted spinach that has sickened 199 people and killed three. As many suspected, cattle feces from a Salinas ranch tested positive for the pathogen, based on matching genetic fingerprints.
“This is a significant finding because it is the first time we linked a spinach or lettuce E. coli O157:H7 outbreak to test results from a specific ranch in the Salinas Valley,” says California State Public Health Officer Mark Horton, MD. “Our follow-up investigation on this ranch is continuing, with the ongoing assessment of animal management, water systems and agricultural practices to clarify how the bacterial contamination of the spinach occurred.”
The cattle ranch, as yet unnamed, is surrounded by thousands of acres of spinach fields, and no one knows how the feces contaminated the crops. Many suspect water runoff, while other possibilities include wind, animals wandering through fields or dirt on farm workers’ shoes.
For now, it remains a troubling mystery, as there have been 20 lettuce- and spinach-related E. coli outbreaks in the Salinas Valley since 1995. California’s summer heat wave quite possibly played a role, as E. coli thrives on warm temperatures.
Some legislators are calling for tougher regulation of the produce industry. As Organic Authority previously reported, inadequate oversight contributes to this public health threat.
For more comprehensive coverage, check out the following Los Angeles Times articles:
Organic Authority’s Complete Coverage (Chronological)
This is the conclusion of an interview with Dr. Sanford Miller, a senior fellow at the University of Maryland Center for Food, Nutrition and Agriculture Policy, as well as former director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
What should we be doing from a policy perspective to improve the situation?
Dr. Miller: There are several issues that must be resolved. First, we need to assure that the FDA and other regulatory agencies have the resources sufficient to perform the job.
Second, we need to give the agencies the authority they need to take action to assure that the rules are being enforced. This includes inspection authority, mandatory recall and so on.
Third, we must seriously, once and for all, bite the bullet and move toward a single food-safety agency. I only hope that it doesn’t require an event as catastrophic as the World Trade Center to force this action, as it did for the formation of the Department of Homeland Security. It can be done. Consider, for example, the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, with programs moved from several agencies.
What does the future hold for the safety of our food supply?
Nevertheless, we can and must do better. Providing the resources and authority—and organizing a single agency for food safety—are important steps.
We also must keep in mind that the responsibility for food safety is not restricted to government. The industry and the consumer have equal responsibility. All three must work together to accomplish this goal of safe food.
Finally, we must prevent the politicization of the food-safety process. Science must be the basis for regulatory action. Unfortunately, there appears to be a dangerous trend to attempt to prostitute the science to meet political goals.
Our Complete Coverage (Chronological)