MSU’s E. coli Outbreak- not just MSU

The little E. coli breakout that was originally thought to be limited to Michigan State University’s campus has now been linked with several sporadic cases across the state of Michigan including 5 cases at the Lenawee County Jail.

Health Department officials are continuing the traceback effort to find the source of the bacteria. According to an article at WLNS (Channel 6 in Lansing), the school has stopped serving turkey and has also looked in to lettuce being served at the time of the outbreak. With these other cases apppearing, the source is probably something from off-campus that is delivered to the school versus the alternative: a campus dining hall or equipment in the kitchen(s) was contaminated.

Although the number of cases has grown, it is expected that everyone afflicted with the infection will recover. E. coli O157:H7 is scary stuff. I’m probably repeating myself but seriously, you don’t want any disease where the mildest symptom is bloody diarrhea, right?

The idea that the same strain of E. coli showing up in the MSU cafeterias is also showing up in a jail is a little disconcerting. I will say this though: I ate at MSU cafeterias for 2 years. I worked in school cafes for 2 years. I certainly ate way too much fried chicken (seriously, serving it 3 times a week is just not right!) but I never felt like the food wasn’t safe or clean. I never got sick and we never had an investigation of our kitchens. As employees, we weren’t always perfect but we never served food that looked spoiled or that hadn’t been refrigerated. I washed my hands regularly and this was in the days before every employee in every restaurant is supposed to wear gloves to handle any food. I actually think this is ridiculous. You are less likely to notice cross-contamination if food is stuck to a glove than to your skin. Oh yeah, my job? Making pizzas- I had my fingers in cheese, meats, toppings and sauce for my entire shift most nights. But I digress.

In fact, most of my non-Spartan friends were jealous of the quality of dorm food at State. MSU has a reputation for serving top notch food in the dorms. I’m sure having a nationally recognized Hotel-Restaurant Management program helps. At U of M on the otherhand, there were a lot of jokes about green-tinged lunch meats and hamburger marked grade “D- Fit for Human Consumption.” The grading system is nonsense (and meat isn’t graded that way anyhow) but my few visits to a University of MIchigan dorm cafeteria left me grateful for my normal daily options.

The point is, I wouldn’t be afraid to eat in an MSU cafeteria. There are risks everyday with eating food but I’m much more concerned about the source of that product than what it might come across in the kitchens at Michigan State University.

Food Bug Updates

Things have been pretty quiet on the US of A lately, the tomato-pepper salmonella outbreak seems to be wrapping up although there is still lots of finger-pointing and grumbling about the investigation.

There is a minor recall in the Northwest involving alfalfa sprouts grown by Sprouters Northwest of Oregon.  The sprouts have been linked with a small outbreak of salmonellosis.  This is the company’s second experience with salmonella contamination, having a similar sized outbreak tied to their product in 2004.

Salmonella in sprouts has been a long running concern among sprout growers. I can recall several times over the last 10 years when sprouts were not available due to regional outbreaks. If you’ve ever tried to grow your own sprouts, you might understand why contamination is so easy.  According to this do-it-yourself guide, you grown your seeds in to sprouts in a warm, moist enclosed jar.  Sprouts love it and so do bacteria.  On a larger, commercial scale, take that jar and turn it in to a giant drum, about the size of an oil drum.  You have to run cold water over the sprouts periodically to wash away any bacteria.  Bacteria are tenacious and even one of two missed organisms will sit around and procreate while you wait to eat your sprouts.  If you have ever bought sprouts from the store and tried to wash them, you know its not the easiest process. I’m betting a lot of people skip the home-washing step.

Way back in 1999, the FDA was issuing advisories about all sprouts (not just alfalfa) after a number of outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli 0157H7 dating back to 1995.  One of their suggestions was to cook the sprouts which doesn’t sound so appetizing but maybe a quick steam would be alright.  In 2002, the USDA Agricultural Research Service conducting a study on the effect on nutritional values if sprout seeds were dosed with a low level of radiation. The study …

Results showed percent germination of the seeds and the rates of growth of the sprouts were inversely related to the radiation dose absorbed by the seeds. Both antioxidant capacity and AA content expressed on a fresh weight basis decreased during growth of the sprouts. Sprouts grown from irradiated seeds had greater antioxidant capacity and AA content on a fresh weight basis than those grown from non-irradiated seeds. However, when the nutritive values were expressed on a per gram seed basis, irradiation had no effect on the nutritive values of sprouts.

The study was published in 2002 but it was the year 2000 when the FDA approved irradiation of seeds meant for sprouts, as a method to reduce contamination by pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella. In a previous post, I mentioned that irradiated foods must be marked as such. And that is true but the rules are quite so cut and dried as you might think.

According to the Organic Consumers Association,

Consumers should be able to see the wording and radura symbol on:

* Plant foods sold in their whole form in a package (e.g., a bag of wheat flour or oranges). radura
* Fresh whole fruits and vegetables. (on the fruit, the box or a display)
* Whole meat and poultry in a package (like chicken breasts).
* Unpackaged meat and poultry (like from a butcher) (display label).
* Irradiated meat and poultry that are part of another packaged food (like irradiated chicken in a frozen chicken potpie).

Consumers will NOT see the wording or radura for:

* Multiple ingredient products where some, but not all of the individual ingredients were irradiated.
* Irradiated ingredients in foods prepared or served by restaurants, salad bars, hotels, airlines, hospitals, schools, nursing homes, etc.
* Irradiated foods prepared by delis or supermarket take-out counters.
* Spices and herb teas
* Sprouts grown from irradiated seeds
* Ingredients in supplements
* Plant-food ingredients that are processed again (like apples in applesauce or papaya in a salad-bar salad).

FYI, This is what the radura looks like:


Meanwhile, its not so peaceful for our Northern Neighbors. First, it was a salmonella outbreak associated with cheese in Quebec. As of September 3, eighty-seven people were confirmed ill with one death reported. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food recalled cheeses made by Fromages La Chaudiere Inc. Meanwhile, eight cheeses from Fromagerie Médard of St. Gédéon and three more from Les Fromagiers de la Table Ronde of Ste. Sophie were recalled after listeria was detected in the cheeses.

Although no infections have yet been specifically tied to the cheeses contaminated with listeria, Canada has been dealing with a separate listeria outbreak, associated with products made by Maple Leaf Foods of Toronto. That outbreak, mostly associated with prepared lunch meats has led to a number of deaths (about 13 according to most recent reports). As a result of the outbreak, the company has closed the plant where the meats were processed. Listeria, while rare, has a much higher rate of mortality at 25% than “run of the mill” salmonella (1% of all salmonella infections). Like all food-borne pathogens, the elderly, the very young and the immune-compromised are at greater risk of serious illness and complications from listeriosis. Listeria infection is also known for inducing early labor in pregnant women.

The interesting thing about the recalls here versus those in Canada is that the Canadian Ministry has the right to force a recall. In the US, the FDA and USDA work with the companies that may be the source of the contaminated food but the government can’t declare a recall, they just issue advisories. Its up the company to issue the recall and they can even pick and choose the parameters of the recall, i.e., the amount of product, the places where it may be found, etc.