Mike the Mad Biologist

Don’t Eat Yer Spinach, Popeye!

mw_pop1
(from here)

There’s been an outbreak of E. coli food poisoning due to contaminated lettuce. This gives me an opportunity to briefly talk about one of my favorite organisms, Escherichia coli. But first, from the AP:

Consumers nationwide should not eat fresh bagged spinach, say health officials probing a multistate outbreak of E. coli that killed at least one person and made dozens of others sick.

Food and Drug Administration and state officials don’t know the cause of the outbreak, although raw, packaged spinach appears likely. “We’re advising people not to eat it,” said Dr. David Acheson of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Eight states were reporting a total of 50 cases of E. coli, Acheson said Thursday.

The death occurred in Wisconsin, where 20 people were reported ill, 11 of them in Milwaukee. The outbreak has sickened others — eight of them seriously — in Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon and Utah. In California, state health officials said they were investigating a possible case there.

A few weeks ago, I gave a lecture to a microbiology course for high school teachers about antibiotic resistance at Woods Hole MBL. One of the laboratory exercises they had was to isolate Enterobacteriaceae (the family that includes E. coli) from…wait for it…store bought spinach. Yes, they did find E. coli.

While we’re on the subject of E. coli, I just want to clear up a couple of things from the article because the entire species of E. coli is given a bad rap:

  1. Most E. coli are not harmful. You have approximately one to one hundred billion E. coli living in your intestinal tract. How ya doin’?
  2. There are some ‘bad’, pathogenic E. coli out there. Shigella is one example; O157:H7, which is implicated in this outbreak, is another.
  3. For some reason, the AP article lists every potential source of contamination…except humans. Very odd.
  4. Another source that’s important and is not listed is animal manure. Since the predominant host of E. coli O157:H7 is cattle, why isn’t this discussed? Many farms use animal manure–this is obviously one potential source of contamination.
  5. I have no idea why this is making more women sick than men.

This is why public health surveillance funding matters, and should not be cut: the sooner we can identify outbreak, the sooner we can act.

Update: Carl Zimmer and Tara also write about this outbreak.

Comments

  1. #1 knobody
    September 15, 2006

    “Women represent four out of five daily salad consumers, and three out of four people who consume salad four to six times a week basis.” (http://www.referenceforbusiness.com/business-plans/Business-Plans-Volume-01/Salad-Packaging.html)

    women are getting sick more than men due to greater exposure.

  2. #2 Michael Schmidt
    September 15, 2006

    Thank you for emphasizing that not all E. coli is dangerous, and specifying the toxic strains. I get so tired of the press demonizing E coli. I’ve had some pretty ridiculous conversations with people about why it’s ok to have E coli in your gut but not in your food.

  3. #3 skunqesh
    September 16, 2006

    It has become clear to me,

    Al-Cowda (guh!) must be behind this most heinous of terrist attacks…

    Using WADs (weapons of assinine destruction)

    Moo-Samma Bin BBQ must be stopped.

  4. #4 Mouth of the Yellow River
    September 16, 2006

    Ni Hao! Kannichi Wa!

    Thanks for taking up for E. coli.

    This single bacterial host has contributed to the worldwide molecular biological revolution in untold ways and it is largely because of its unique properties and where it sits in the worldwide eco-system.

    It’s simple metabolic system that benignly lives off the sewage of mankind, yet performs its symbiotic service without complaint, or evolution to malignancy.

    Because of his lack of background degradative enzymes as proteases, glucosidases and nucleic acid’ases that other species need to enhance their energy sources at their site of infection, E. coli is a great host for expression of external gene products with minimal background.

    Sounds sort of like the George Bush presidency in worldwide politics, right?

    MOTYR

  5. #5 Edmund
    September 17, 2006

    Yellow River,

    Did you mean to refer to E. Coli with the word “his”, or did I misunderstand your comment?

  6. #6 Ryan S.
    September 18, 2006

    I think he meant ‘this’

  7. #7 Kate
    August 21, 2010

    Interesting article. So it is ok to buy fresh spinach leaves, not the ones in plastic bags.

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