Saturday, October 21, 2006

When good food goes wrong: e.coli, botulism, c.difficile
Oct. 20, 2006

In the big picture, death by vegetable is an uncommon way to go. Six carrot-juice poisonings are small potatoes, so to speak, compared to the havoc caused by more common killers like cancer and car crashes.
But this month’s toxic carrot story comes on the heels of last month’s tainted spinach alert, which in turn has been followed by an alert about our beef. What are we to make of the troubling fact that almost a fifth of the meat sampled at a Canadian grocery store in a recent study contained the toxin-producing bacteria c. difficile?
It’s hard not to feel just a little alarmed about our food supply in light of recent headlines, and curious whether everything was OK. Having gone looking for some answers to that question, I can tell you that it’s not.
First, let’s consider the spinach. More than 200 people in the U.S. got sick from eating bagged spinach that had been contaminated with the e.coli bacteria. It’s a bug that lives in the intestines of cows and humans, which means that manure from one or the other of those species was likely the cause of the contamination.
The tainted spinach mystery has yet to be solved, but the sequence of events is a little scary all by itself.
It starts with a concentration of the spinach industry. More than half of the North American bagged-spinach market is grown on nine California mega-farms, at least one of which turns out to be surrounded by commercial cattle operations. E.coli is a fact of life in the overcrowded, over-medicated world of factory farming.
In the last decade, nine outbreaks of vegetables contaminated with e.coli have been recorded in California’s Salinas Valley. Sometimes it was spinach, sometimes lettuce or sprouts. Even while last month’s spinach scare was unfolding, 8,000 cartons of lettuce were also recalled after their irrigation water turned out to be contaminated with e.coli. And unlike other toxins on our vegetables that can be dealt with by a good rinse under the tap, e.coli contamination can’t be washed off.
Now, the carrots. They were juiced and packaged by Bolthouse Farms, an American company. Three people in Georgia and one in Florida developed botulism poisoning after drinking the juice. Two Canadians were then poisoned by the same brand of juice.
Read the coverage of the botulism incident and it sounds like six North Americans coincidentally didn’t refrigerate their carrot juice quickly enough and got botulism poisoning as a result. I’ve got my doubts about that, and not only because I can’t recall a single public-health warning in my lifetime of the potentially lethal effects of room-temperature commercial carrot juice.
Bolthouse says it will “modify its juice processing to prevent risk from consumer mishandling.” Whatever that means, it sounds bigger than individual consumers forgetting to refrigerate their carrot juice.
As while it’s bad news to hear of toxic carrot juice, it’s worse to learn that Canadian health inspectors were still finding the juice on grocery shelves more than two weeks after it was recalled. That says something profound about the way we’re handling consumer alerts, and our stores’ responsibility for staying on top of the latest lethal vegetable.
Finally, c. difficile. Good news for vegetarians - this one’s about meat. But do remember that e.coli used to be about the meat as well, which could mean that c.difficile can cross the divide too.
C. difficile is a toxin-producing bacteria that takes hold when the body is being hammered by antibiotics, which kill off the “good” bacteria that normally keep the bug in check. It’s a rapidly growing problem for hospitals and long-term care facilities, where it takes hold among sick people and causes painful intestinal illness, even death. Eighty per cent of the cases in North America involve people on antibiotics.
The most lethal varieties of the toxin can wreak havoc. A four-year c. difficile outbreak that Quebec hospitals are just now gaining control of has killed an estimated 2,000 people. It took an aggressive public campaign warning against the unnecessary use of antibiotics to slow the outbreak.
Not incidentally, four million kilos of antibiotic feed additives are used every year by the U.S. cattle industry. A recent U.S.-Canada joint study found the presence of c.difficile in a fifth of the meat sampled at a Canadian grocery store, and almost a third of the samples in the U.S. Who can be surprised? It makes sense that animals fed antibiotics as part of their daily regimen would have high rates of c. difficile.
Are we putting ourselves at risk if we eat c.difficile-contaminated meat? Too soon to say. But we’re eating it, despite being largely clueless as to whether that’s a danger.
True, food-borne illnesses are still blessedly rare as killers. But the patterns in this fall’s food scares are frightening. When the spinach salads turn lethal, something’s very wrong.

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