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September 2001

Release Date: September 10, 2001

Organic Food May Hold Hidden Dangers

Going organic may be hazardous to your health.

The reason is a strain of the E. coli bacteria may actually contaminate certain vegetables when they are fertilized with organic materials, says Dr. Mandy A. Carr, a research scientist and assistant professor of animal science at Angelo State University.

E. coli, or Escherichia coli, is a normal bacteria found in the intestinal tract of humans and other warm-blooded animals. E. coli O157:H7 is a strain of the bacteria which was identified in the 1980s as causing diarrheal diseases in humans, Carr said. It can be transmitted by contact with waste matter of humans and other mammals.

Typical symptoms of an E. coli O157:H7 infection can include acute cramps, fever, vomiting, bloody diarrhea and, in worst cases, kidney failure, Carr said. Children under 5 and the elderly are most susceptible to the infection.

Recent research, she said, has shown that E. coli O157:H7 causes over 40,000 infections and 250 deaths each year in the United States alone. The organism can incubate in the human intestinal tract for up to four days before symptoms develop. The illness can last up to 10 days. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labels E. coli O157:H7 as one of the top four concerns related to the national food supply.

While outbreaks are often associated with meat contamination when fecal material comes in contact with the meat during slaughter, there have been cases where outbreaks have been caused by contaminated potato salad, apple juice, cantaloupe and even alfalfa sprouts, among various fruits and vegetables. These cases are problematical because it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine the source of the contamination. It could be human contamination or organic contamination.

With the growing demand for organically grown food products, chemical fertilizers are often discouraged," Carr said. "Thus, animal waste and by-products are utilized in food production. One explanation of outbreaks caused by fruits and vegetables is that organic fertilizer was used in the production of these foods and contamination occurred in the field."

Consequently, organically grown fruits and vegetables contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 carry a hidden health hazard.

Even so, a good washing of all fruits and vegetables can remove the bacteria and make it safe for eating. In fact some restaurants now use specially made commercial washes to cleanse their fruits and vegetables before offering them to the public.

Human contamination results from poor hygiene and germs being transferred from individuals to the food. Again, a good washing can reduce the chances for additional contamination.

In spite of the dangers of the E. coli strain, Carr said preventive measures can reduce the chances of becoming infected, either from meat or fruit and vegetable sources.

First, cook all meats properly, Carr said. Hamburger and other ground meats should be cooked until juices run clear at 160 degrees. Steaks and other whole meats can be cooked to a lesser degree of doneness as long as the surface reaches 160 degrees and is not punctured by forks during the preparation or cooking. Punctures can transfer the bacteria to the interior of the meat where temperatures may not be high enough to destroy the microorganism. Carr recommends using tongs rather than forks for turning meat during grilling.

Second, wash non-cooked items well with water and cleaners made for fruits and vegetables or even with antimicrobial soaps. This can help destroy the dangerous E. coli strain that may have contaminated the food, either through organic procedures or human handling.

Finally, maintain high standards of hygiene around the house and at work, she said. Because of the highly contagious nature of the bacteria, everyone should always follow their mother's admonition to wash their hands after using the bathroom, changing diapers or coming in contact with any human or animal waste material

In spite of the potential dangers, consumers can take some comfort, Carr said, by recognizing that the food supply in the United States has remained one of the safest in the world for decades.

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