By: Kerry Bazany

There is nothing that brings greater heartache than encountering a bully. They don’t just exist on the school playground or classroom. They can even be at your place of work. When you see the “bully”, you get that uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach. You don’t want to make eye contact. You do everything in your power to avoid contact at all, knowing you will feel much, much worse just for having to deal with the bully. Sound familiar? It should, because the bully scenario can be applied to one of the greatest nemesis of the foodborne pathogens: STEC E.coli. For my intent and purpose, I’m going to call this bully “E”, and tell you a little story.

“E”: The Story of a Bully

E has been around for a long, long time. He was given his formal name, Escherichia coli back in 1885 when it was discovered that he was the culprit behind acute diarrhea in infants and young children. His most common and perhaps dastardly form is E. coli O157:H7.

E is a tyrant. He has many cohorts in the world of foodborne pathogens, but he is strong, sneaky, and double-crossing. He seeks to, and indeed has, invaded the food we regularly consume, like meat and produce.  We become just like that poor kid on the school playground who is completely whammied by the evil eyes and sneers of E, cleverly disguised in many of the foods we love to eat. In the manner of the bully we want to avoid, E entices us. What we thought of as a “friendly” hamburger or a harmless salad has turned on us.

As of late, E has been making the rounds in one of our most beloved and healthy, staples: the salad. E has managed to infiltrate and contaminate romaine lettuce in both Canada and (possibly) the US. The FDA has not issued a recall because the source of the contamination is unknown. But Consumer Reports are recommending complete avoidance.

Behind the Swings

Bullies love to play dirty, and euphemisms aside, that is where he is known to lurk: specifically in feces. Ewww!! How can that be enticing? Like a bully, E catches us off guard. We happily prepare our hamburgers at cookouts, prepare delicious salads, and eat at restaurants, all the while trusting that these foods are safe. Then approximately a day or even up to ten days later, we are writhing from abdominal cramps, ceaseless diarrhea, and maybe a slight fever. E has completed his terrible mission.

But these effects can go on to more serious complications and wreak havoc in the body. Typically, rest and increased fluid intake are all that is needed to defeat the effects of E; however, antibiotics are rarely administered with the O157 strain because the antibiotics actually stimulate the bacteria to release more toxins. Hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS) is a severe, potentially life-threatening complication of E.coli. “Hemolytic” refers to the breakdown of red blood cells, which can lead to anemia. “Uremic” refers to the function of the kidneys, which can become impaired by the infection.

Let’s imagine a very common situation, namely, going to the store and purchasing some staples for your upcoming meals at home. You buy a bag of pre-packaged lettuce. You also buy a bunch of romaine lettuce. You envision making a super healthy meal with your salad items. Later that evening while cleaning up, you congratulate yourself on taking steps to eat healthier! But, a day (maybe up to 10) later you experience the worst stomach ache you’ve ever had, and shortly thereafter, your bathroom commode becomes your best friend. Quickly you consult Dr. Google with your symptoms, and sure enough, foodborne illnesses pop up everywhere.

At this point, you are deranged with discovering how you may have become so sick. You are certainly glad that your spouse and kids were off to see a movie and decided to grab a quick bite to eat somewhere. You ascertain that you most likely have a foodborne illness, and it may have been our nemesis/bully: E. It is time for you to get yourself to the doctor. Messing with E is no picnic and definitely not recommended.

Your spouse and kids are worried, but they help nurse you back to your old self within a week, providing cool washcloths and lots of fluids. Your immune system has championed the fight to full recovery, but what a fight it’s been! Now, you’re angry. What did I eat that could have sickened me so much? You were blindsided by your effort to eat healthier and transformed into a helpless heap of misery for almost an entire week. Enter E and his malevolent and covert tactics of disguise and his boorish, bully ways.

Okay…what did I eat just before I got sick? You had an entire salad with light ranch dressing and chick peas and sprouts for topping. You had some fruit juice that you think may have been left out overnight, but what’s the harm in that? Oh, and you indulged in some Steak Tartare that a coworker brought in earlier that day.

Lo and behold, the bully emerges, and here’s where the innocent presentation of those delectable foods converges with E. Here’s where you may have made some big mistakes. E can take up residence in:

  • Leafy green vegetables and the surfaces of many other vegetables, including chick peas and bean sprouts (wash ALL produce before consuming)
  • Creamy salad dressing (was it left out at room temperature?)
  • Fruit juice (was it pasteurized or left out to come to room temperature?)
  • Meat (raw and/or undercooked meat is always a danger: make sure to cook all meat to its proper internal temperature)
  • Did I wash my hands and utensils thoroughly?

It goes without saying that our bully E is a living organism because it is a bacterium, but it does not think and its intentions are not malevolent. But giving E.coli a personality of sorts helps to metaphorically explain how we as consumers can make uninformed and unsafe decisions when it comes to food consumption and best food safety practices. Stand up to E and other foodborne pathogens by being proactive and informed.