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Guarding Against Rare E. Coli Outbreaks

November 07, 1996|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES DEPUTY FOOD EDITOR

By now, most cooks know to be careful when handling beef and poultry because of the danger of food-borne illnesses. But last week's outbreak of illnesses caused by E. coli bacteria came through apple juice.

More than 40 people--mostly children--in West Coast states suffered severe intestinal disorders after drinking unpasteurized fruit juices made by Odwalla Inc., a natural food company in Half Moon Bay, Calif.

The search for the source of the contamination centers on bacteria either transferred during human handling or picked up from the ground by windfall apples. This fruit is usually scarred in some way and therefore unsalable for eating. But it is sometimes used for making apple juice, which is a popular neutral base for fruit drinks.

Odwalla's contracts with suppliers prohibit windfall apples, but Greg Steltenpohl, Odwalla founder and chairman, told Reuters that it is impossible to check every piece of fruit.

This is not the first outbreak of E. coli linked to produce. There have been problems--scattered and minor--with lettuce, potatoes and organic turnips.

"The most important thing for consumers is to treat produce as a perishable product and to make sure to take the usual practices of keeping it cold, washing it thoroughly before eating," says Fred Shank, director of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "That's the best advice we have right now. We're trying to learn more about these organisms in order to take care of things in future."

Produce should be washed just before eating, though, rather than when it is brought home from the store. Moisture increases the danger of spoilage in many types of fruits and vegetables.

Taking these precautions will decrease the risk of food-borne illnesses, but it won't erase them, Shank says. Too little is known about them at this point.

"We must realize that with food-borne diseases, the incidence of reporting is very small when compared to the total number of cases that actually occur," he says. "We don't know what causes the vast majority of food-borne illnesses. They just don't get reported."

At a minimum, the FDA advises the very young, the very old and those with compromised immune systems to drink only pasteurized fruit juices. "We don't have the science to back that up, but it just makes damned good sense," Shank says.

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