Oops, it may be us!
The deadly E. coli bacteria that has so far killed 23 people and contaminated 2,330 in Europe, and that has already found its way to the United States, was first blamed on cucumbers from Spain, then on bean sprouts from northern Germany.
But E. coli bacteria doesn’t grow in or on vegetables or fruit at all; it lives in the intestines of animals. Plants only come into the picture when they get contaminated – for example by waste water, especially the kind of waste water that comes from factory farms.
So, which animals may have been responsible for the new strain of E. coli? At least one scientist is saying it may be us humans.
This particular strain, known as EHEC, is not found in the digestive tract of cattle, according to Lothar Beutin, an expert at Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment.
“These pathogens have adapted themselves to people,” Lothar Beutin told Der Tagesspiegel.
The bean sprout farm came under suspicion after a worker at the farm was taken severely ill with E. coli and had to have part of her intestine removed.
The bacteria had moved “very fast,” said the doctor who operated on her. “The surgery probably saved her — we removed a large part of the lower intestine.”
But it’s uncertain that the bacteria started there. Right now, there are no firm suspects.
How is it spread, and what can you do?
Some facts about E. coli:
What is E. coli? There are many strains of these bacteria, and they are found naturally in the intestines of cattle, humans, poultry and other animals. Many of them are harmless. The latest outbreak, centered in Hamburg, Germany is being blamed on a non-O157 “super-toxic” strain called O104:H4.
How it spreads: E. coli can contaminate the surface of meat when animals are slaughtered, and it can then spread when meat is processed or ground. A package of ground beef at the meat counter can contain products from many different cows, so the risk spreads even faster.
Raw fruits and vegetables become contaminated in the field by badly composted manure, tainted water, or poor hygiene among farm workers. The bacteria can also be spread person to person.
Carriers: Animals, including humans, can spread the bacteria.
Precautions: Good hygiene includes lots of hand washing and safe food handling. No one who suspects they may be infected, or who has any gastrointestinal illness, should prepare food for other people.
Neutralizing E. coli: Cooking food to a safe internal temperature destroys the bacteria. Sanitizing countertops will help prevent contamination in food preparation areas. Meats should be kept apart from fruits and vegetables.
Symptoms: Severe abdominal cramps. In some cases bloody diarrhea. In the German outbreak, many patients developed an unusual type of kidney failure.