Thursday, September 14, 2006

FDA Warning: E. Coli Found In Bagged Spinach

We can certainly debate the merits of the various nutritional approaches. But when it comes to an outbreak of an infectious disease such as E. coli, we're all on the same team.

This Forbes magazine column reports that one person is already dead and 50 others, mostly women, have gotten sick with E. coli poisoning after consuming bagged spinach leaves in eight U.S. states according to reports by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

They have issued a nationwide warning to the public against eating any bagged spinach until this outbreak can be contained.

An FDA spokesman said the death happened in Wisconsin where 40 percent of the sick are located as well. There were seven other states with at least one person who has gotten sick from eating E. coli-contaminated spinach leaves, including Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon and Utah.

While the source of the outbreak is still unknown, the FDA has narrowed down the commonality among the outbreak participants being the bagged spinach.

"We're advising people not to eat it," the FDA said on Thursday.

E. coli leads to sudden diarrhea with bloody stools and most healthy people can see improvements in their health and completely recovered within seven days. However, the most vulnerable are infants and the elderly who can die from kidney failure if they are infected with the E. coli virus.

The FDA is urging anyone who gets sick after eating raw bagged spinach leaves to see their doctor as soon as possible to check for the presence of E. coli in their body. They remind people to wash their vegetables before eating them and assured the public that other pre-packaged salads are not affected by this outbreak.

This news regarding spinach leaves is a little scary for me personally because I eat packaged spinach leaves every single day (you can see how much I eat from my latest sample menu from last week) as part of my low-carb lifestyle. In fact, I have four bags of spinach leaves in my refrigerator that I bought two weeks ago. My wife dumps the bags into a big Tupperware container and measures out my portion for my meals each day for me.

Thankfully I have not gotten sick yet and I pray that none of you who regularly eats raw spinach leaves like I do gets sick either. Low-carb, low-fat, vegetarian--WHATEVER!--we don't want you to get infected with the E. coli, so please play it safe until this outbreak passes. There are other excellent low-carb vegetables you can consume, including salad greens, cauliflower, green beans, spaghetti squash, and broccoli, just to name a few. Play it safe and keep on livin' la vida low-carb!

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Blogger Gary said...

Be careful of panicky press reports, though. The Accidental Hedonist blog reports that this alarm may be premature. Read the following entry for some perspective on this topic.

Furthermore, I posted the following comment after reading the entry. I remain skeptical because...

Oh yes, I can see where this is headed. The public in a panic, now the FDA can advance the corporate agenda of making food "safe" for consumption by *spraying* our foods with disinfectants and antibiotics, as they just did for our sliced cold cuts. That's the ticket! Then we can forget all about proper cultivation methods and hygienic packaging. In the future, our foods don't have to be clean as long as they are sprayed! And besides the obvious health bonus, think of the savings to the food processors in "optimized" processing and packaging procedures!

9/15/2006 1:46 PM  
Blogger jsessler said...

Gary--your assumptions are misguided. Bagged produce has been a problem for several years. A year or so ago there was an ecoli outbreak from bagged lettuce. The issue comes from workers in the field not washing hands after using the "honey pots" out there and then the product is picked. When it is co-mingled prior to bagging, the ecoli gets on all the product in the batch, not just the leaves the worker touched. There has been a huge discussion of this in several articles and all the advice is to wash all produce thoroughly, bagged or not. Since they have already had one death and many people sick from this outbreak, continuing to eat bagged product that you already purchased prior to the advisory is simply playing roulette with your health. Washing something that could be infected with ecoli may or may not get rid of the bacteria, but making a habit of washing everything you purchase and using food safe food washes to do it and rinsing thoroughly is just a prudent thing to do.

9/15/2006 3:56 PM  
Blogger LindaLCforLife said...

People got sick from consuming mushrooms that said prewashed on the label. The mushrooms had been "prewashed" with contaminated water. I still think Gary has a point regarding the FDA though. I don't know how anyone in their right mind could trust them.

9/15/2006 5:17 PM  
Blogger Sweet Tart said...

If you have to wash it anyway, why buy the bagged product? It's more expensive and doesn't really save any time. I stopped using it a while ago because it never seemed all that fresh to me.

9/15/2006 7:23 PM  
Blogger detox said...

Which reminds me of a comment a German food critic recently uttered when some kind of new meat scandal was on the news: people eat a meat sandwich, and when the get sick they tend to blame the meat, but in most cases it is the salad which causes the disturbances...

9/16/2006 8:55 AM  
Blogger Gary J said...

JSessler: My assumptions may be misguided in this case. It's hard to know what the motives of the current administration are these days. Does the FDA work for interests of the corporations or those of individual citizens? The record is mixed, to say the least.

Recently the FDA approved a spray for cold cuts. Now, ostensibly this is for the public good, but (1) the public has no say in the matter; you may buy packaged cold cuts and you won't know whether your meats have been sprayed or not; (2) this spray may allow meat packers to get even sloppier with their hygiene procedures; rather than taking time to carefully ensure that no animal fecal matter winds up on edible cuts, they can just spray the meats instead.

I have two main points: (1) You don't have a choice in the matter (except that you may decide not to buy packaged cold cuts any more); (2) The scientists say it's safe, but we don't have large-scale, long-term studies that would prove safety just yet.

Here's the story, as published in The Chicago Tribune.
Getting to meat of the matter: Killing bacteria in cold cuts

By Hilary E. MacGregor
Tribune Newspapers: Los Angeles Times
Published September 5, 2006

If you want to get rid of a pest, why not use a smaller pest to plague it? That's the tack approved recently by the Food and Drug Administration in clearing the use of bacteria-eating viruses as a food additive.

These viruses, known as bacteriophage or phage, now can be sprayed on ready-to-eat cold cuts and luncheon meats by manufacturers to prevent listeriosis, the most deadly of all food-borne illnesses in this country.

To the average consumer, the notion that companies might spray live viruses on meat to protect people from disease seems counterintuitive, if not downright weird. But phage experts say there is nothing to fear.

"They are very safe," said Vincent Fischetti, a professor of microbiology at Rockefeller University in New York and the head of the lab of bacterial pathogenesis. "These viruses do not affect humans. They only infect bacteria.

The FDA spent four years evaluating the safety and effectiveness of the "cocktail" of several phage at the request of Intralytix Inc., a Baltimore biotechnology company. In presenting its petition, Intralytix referred the government to more than 20 studies documenting the power of phage to fight infection, many of them performed in Eastern bloc countries where phage therapies have long been popular in treating certain infections.

Phage are everywhere -- in the water, soil and our intestines and mucus membranes. They were discovered in Paris about a century ago, and, with their discovery, scientists believed they had discovered the key to controlling bacteria. When antibiotics were later discovered, phage research was abandoned in the West. But in the Soviet Union, the research flourished.

Phage act by infiltrating disease-causing microbes and destroying them from within, effectively turning their prey into phage-producing factories.

But harnessing these tiny viruses to fight food poisoning takes more than just spraying cold cuts with random collections of phage. Invading phage and enemy bacteria must be perfectly matched for the process to work. Each strain of phage is highly specific and kills only certain bacteria.

Also, bacteria become resistant to certain strains of bacteriophage very rapidly. That is why, in this new spray-on application for ready-to-eat meats, Intralytix scientists are using six different phage. To come up with their cocktail, the scientists collected more than 300 different strains of listeria. There was no single phage that killed all strains, so the scientists designed the product so that every kind of listeria would be attacked by more than one phage.

In other words, "there is lots of protection in case a mutation occurred," said John Vazzana, president and chief executive of Intralytix.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year 2,500 people in the U.S. become sick from listeriosis, and about 500 die


9/16/2006 11:46 AM  
Blogger Gary J said...

JSessler: One more question. If this has been a big problem, is it true that so many people employed in the harvest are E. Coli carriers? Why would that be? And if so, does that mean that many of us are impervious to E. Coli? I'd appreciate it if you could shed some light on the matter.

9/16/2006 11:48 AM  
Blogger jsessler said...

I totally agree with you that the FDA is not to be trusted. You will get no argument from me on that subject. I asked for information from a microbiologist friend of mine who is the current president of the CLMA in the US (the professional organization for laboratory clinicians); here is what she told me:

From a microbiological standpoint, human feces is loaded with all kinds of bacteria, and some people carry several forms of e.coli bacteria in their feces without being seriously ill themselves--but might have some diarrea symptoms due to carrying the primary type that makes people ill: O157:H7. Also, animal feces can be a source of harmful e.coli. Note that the grower in this case was an organic farm--while raw manure is rarely used in agricultural settings, but you never know. When certain forms of e.coli are injested orally it becomes a serious illness. People who don't wash their hands thoroughly after using the restroom carry e.coli to the fields and it spreads to the leaves of the product they pick.

If sanitary sewers over flow due to rains and get into the fields somehow, it can spread e.coli all over the place (this was documented in an article I read in the New York Times a few months ago, I believe). One of the law firms looking to capitalize on the latest outbreak has some great info on their website:

Here is some other information that might explain more for you: E. coli O157:H7 bacteria is believed to mostly live in the intestines of cattle, but has also been found in the intestines of chickens, deer, sheep, and pigs. E. coli O157:H7 does not make the animals that carry it ill; the animals are merely the reservoir for the bacteria.

Meat typically becomes contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 during the slaughtering process, when the contents of an animal's intestines and feces are allowed to come into contact with the carcass. Unless the carcass is sanitized, the E. coli bacteria are eventually mixed into the meat as it is ground. Because the bacteria is mixed into the meat during the grinding process, and is not just on the surface, thorough cooking (to160 degrees) is required to prevent E. coli O157:H7 poisoning from consumption of ground beef. Contaminated meat looks and smells normal, and although the number of organisms required to cause an infection is not known, it is suspected to be very small.

Fresh fruits and vegetables can become contaminated pre-or post-harvest. Apples picked up from off the ground and used in the production of unpasteurized fruit juices were the source of a large E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in 1996. Fecal matter from cows’ udders and unsanitary production facilities have led to numerous E. coli outbreaks traced to raw milk. Contaminated seeds, irrigation water, and flooding have contributed to E. coli outbreaks traced to alfalfa sprouts, lettuce, spinach, parsley, and other fresh produce.

Hope this is informative and answers your question. Also, I won't buy bagged lettuce or spinach any longer--I stopped a while back when the CDC started advising people to wash everything thoroughly, even pre-bagged products.

9/17/2006 12:44 PM  
Blogger Newbirth said...


I believe the spinach was organic. I noticed both Earthbound Farms and O Organics on the list. These types wouldn't be sprayed with anything no matter what regulations were in place.

Bagged products do pose a danger so I'll be stearing clear. I like "fast" so I do buy pre-bagged veggies. I use them every day to make my big dinner salad.

9/17/2006 7:16 PM  

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