Here's How to Avoid E. coli
October's E. coli outbreak that paralyzed Half Moon Bay, Calif.'s politically and nutritionally correct juice company, Odwalla, Inc., has created wide-spread speculation about the safety of even the most innocuous and presumably "safe" products in the market: produce.Directly following the October scare, when a 16-month Denver girl died from E. coli-related complications and dozens of others were hospitalized, a coalition of commercial and organic produce farmers, the Monterey County Argriculture Department and representatives from the Food and Services branch of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) met to discuss preventative methods for ensuring that E. coli does not threaten produce production in one of the nation's richest agriculture strongholds."E. coli is a major concern to everyone," says Don Rochester, assistant Monterey County Agriculture Commissioner. "We are trying to form a working community to try and develop industry standards for ways of dealing with sanitation and preparation of products." Although the deadly E. coli 0157:H7 strain which is believed to have contaminated the Odwalla apple-based juices has not been found on produce grown on the Central Coast of California, in the past year, it has been linked in four instances to commerically-grown lettuce, and sickened 10 people who drank apple cider in Connecticut.E. coli, known as Escherichia coli, bacteria is found in the intestines of animals and humans and spread through contact with fecal matter. A particularly virulent strain, 0157:H7 was first discovered in 1982 and can cause intestinal illness and a form of kidney failure which may be fatal to young children and those with comprimised immune systems. Until recently, it was believed that the bacteria would only survive in meat, particularly beef products. But the latest epidemic, which is believed to have come from apples purchased by Odwalla and added to 13 of the company's 25 beverage products, has forced local and national health and agriculture communities to review how produce is treated for possible contaminants.The FDA and the US Department of Agriculture are looking into standardizing sanitation methods to be used on produce for commercial sale, regulations that could require that all apple juice be pasteurized (a heating method which kills bacteria), and that every produce manufacturer adopt programs that prove foods stay pure from harvest to the table. According to Monterey County Environmental Health Director Walter Wong, this summer's FDA inspection of Monterey County agriculture plants revealed that E. coli bacteria (not the 0157:H7 strain) was often present when a chlorine wash was not used on produce, and found in some instances where farmers used unsanitized recirculated or stored water in which the bacteria can grow.Organic farmers, who don't use many of the sanitizing chemicals used on commercial farms, are particularly aware of the additional scrutiny they are under as speculation abounds about the safety of au natural produce. "We are concerned about the misconception that organic is being linked to [E. coli] when in fact the [Odwalla] outbreak was not even in an organic product," says Diane Bowen, executive director of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) which represents 650 California growers.Nonetheless, Bowen says, the organization is working with the agriculture community as a whole on establishing standards for safe produce production. CCOF is further warning farmers to thoroughly wash produce and reminding them that organic guidelines allow the use of chorine and other sanitizing rinses on produce of up to four parts per million. It is further emphasizing that farmers not use raw manure on crops, instead encouraging composting manure with organic matter-a process that produces temperatures of up to 150 degrees and enough to kill any bacteria living in the manure.Meanwhile, health specialists are urging people to thoroughly wash all produce, commercial or organic, and to steer clear of unpasteurized juice. "When you grow anything outdoors people have got to realize that it can be contaminated from many sources and it's hard to trace back to where it came from," says Dr. Joseph Montecalvo, a professor of food science at Cal Poly Tech in San Luis Obispo. "How people handle food when they get home is important. All food that is purchased, especially now with people buying turkey and produce for the holidays, has to be washed."