A wave of E. coli-related illness in Europe is sending ripples of concern… (Fabian Bimmer / Reuters )
Before a couple of days ago, you probably never gave much thought to Spanish cucumbers or German lettuce. But news about a deadly — and perhaps never-before-seen — strain of E. coli that has hit Europe is rattling nerves in this part of the world. American consumers have already shown a willingness to avoid foods that are even rumored to be contaminated with bacteria. The salmonella-tomato scare in 2008, the E. coli-tainted spinach in 2006 .... Consumers might well wonder whether we're due for another outbreak and, for that matter, whether raw produce can even be considered safe.
First of all, no one can say for sure that the strain of E. coli in Europe is any nastier or deadlier than the germs that have been showing up in American foods for decades. But that’s small comfort because our home-grown germs are plenty nasty enough. The CDC estimates that roughly 70,000 Americans fall ill every year from E. coli O157:H7, the strain of the bacterium most often responsible for serious illnesses in this country.
Raw produce is an especially common cause of food-borne illness because it’s, well, raw. Heating food to 160 degrees F is a sure way to kill E. coli, but not many salads ever hit that mark. The CDC recommends throughly rinsing all raw produce and avoiding unpasteurized juice. Rinsing won’t remove all of the bacteria, but it will definitely reduce their levels. And experts agree that well-rinsed produce is almost always better for you than no produce at all.
The outbreak in Europe is a reminder that unhealthy things can show up in healthy foods. But should it also be a call to action?
Food producers in this country aren’t required to test their lettuce, sprouts or other types of produce for E. coli contamination before they send the food to market. They are expected, however, to use “best practices” to keep produce from coming in contact with fresh cow manure and other sources of dangerous E. coli. But as David Gombas, senior vice president of food and safety technology for the United Fresh Produce Assn., points out, it’s impossible to put a bacterial shield over vast fields of crops in the great outdoors.
Consumers can be reassured, though, that deadly bacteria aren’t likely to be lurking on every cucumber, here or abroad. As Gombas points out, investigators have generally been able to trace every deadly outbreak in raw produce to an isolated source, including the single salmonella-infested jalapeno pepper farm that sickened more than 1,000 people in 2008.
It’s worth keeping in mind that nearly 50 million people get sick with food-borne bacteria and viruses every year. Against that backdrop, any particular outbreak is barely a blip on the screen. Whether or not E. coli and salmonella are making the news of the week, it’s wise to be careful with produce. Not afraid — but careful.