By: Kerry Bazany

No one wants to see someone they live become ill, especially when it could have been prevented. This is especially true for those who have children. Thankfully, my own children, now grown, survived their childhood unscathed by foodborne illnesses. However, if one of them had succumbed to an illness due to what I had fed them, my reaction would have been one of anger and frustration. As parents, we invest a great deal of trust in our local grocers to deliver healthy, safe produce.

Shiga toxin Escherichia coli (STEC) O157, commonly known as E. coli, has been making its nasty rounds for quite some time: actually since 1885. E. coli causes 100,000 reported cases of illness, 3,000 hospitalizations, and 90 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s not all well and good. But in actuality, as a parent, your greatest concern is for your child and how to treat the illness and most importantly, how to stop it from ever happening again.

A Little History Lesson About E. Coli

E. coli, as stated previously, has been around since 1885, or more accurately, it was discovered in that year by a German bacteriologist named Theodor Escherich who attributed acute cases of infant diarrhea and gastroenteritis to this bacterium. As a mother, I can imagine those poor mothers terrified by the sudden onset of the symptoms in their children, and relief at the prospect that it could be treated.

What Parents (and Everyone Else) Needs to Know

I could provide a great deal of statistical information regarding the number of outbreaks associated with E. coli, research investigations and the like, but you may be reading this article because someone you care for was diagnosed with a foodborne illness due to E. coli, and all you want to know is how to make your child or loved one better. How did they even contract it in the first place?

There’s no getting around the fact that the symptoms of foodborne illness caused by the E. coli bacterium are downright distasteful, and can be life-threatening, especially in the case of those who are immune-compromised. These symptoms include:

  • Stomach cramps.
  • Diarrhea, that often is bloody.
  • Fever of about 100 F to 101 F (37.7 C to 38.3 C)
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Mild dehydration.

Most symptoms of E. coli resolve by themselves in a few days; however, if severe dehydration and/or anemia are present, hospitalization is required. Treatment for this foodborne illness typically involves drinking lots of fluids to replenish those that are lost. Antibiotics are usually not prescribed to treat E. coli due to an increased risk of developing hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a disease in which Shiga toxin destroys red blood cells and platelets.

From Farm to Table

Fresh fruits and vegetables once were thought to be relatively free of disease-producing pathogens. In recent years, however, outbreaks of foodborne illness linked to fruits and vegetables have become more common. These outbreaks come from produce grown both in the United States and in other countries. Outbreaks have been linked to Escherichia coli O157:H7 on apples, lettuce, cantaloupe and sprouts. Contamination can occur at any point in the farm to table process. According to Robert Mandrell, an investigator in the studies and research division with the USDA Center for Produce Safety and Microbiology Research in northern California, “We are looking at the ranches and watersheds and wildlife around these (Northern California) regions and getting an idea about how things are moving through this environment. We are analyzing E. coli in water, wildlife, and livestock and using microbial source tracking to connect the strains.” No single area of study has been conclusive, but the belief is that wind, rainfall, and distance from watersheds to crops all play into the movement of dangerous E. coli bacterial strains.

Root crops and leafy vegetables such as lettuce are the most susceptible to contamination from the application of manure to the soil. The fecal matter from cattle, deer, and sheep can come in contact with produce that is grown in soil when it is shed in their feces.

So, What About the Produce I Buy?

It is true that there is always a risk in consuming vegetables and leafy produce when they are raw. In fact, E. coli, as a bacterium, has become virulent and will not wash off of produce even when immersed in bleach. Vinegar may help clean the vegetables, but will not decontaminate the surfaces. Once the bacteria have attached themselves to the surfaces, they become much harder to kill. The only effective methods to kill E. coli are irradiation and cooking. However, you can still eat raw vegetables, but use safe food preparation practices. Additionally, the health benefits from consuming uncooked vegetables with their plethora of wonderful vitamins and minerals can far outweigh the relatively small risk you may have of having those vegetables be contaminated with E. coli.

If you grow your own produce, you can follow these recommendations

  • Irrigate your garden with potable water.
  • Never apply manure that is not composted to growing food crops.
  • Compost manure properly to kill most  coliO157:H7.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly before working with food.
  • Thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables before eating them

Unfortunately, if you want to completely eliminate the risk of a foodborne illness caused by E. coli as well as other pathogens, always cook your vegetables, and practice other safe food practices by thoroughly and frequently washing hands and food surfaces during preparation, keep produce and meat separated, wash and sanitize utensils, and cook all food to their proper internal temperatures.