California spinach possibly tainted with cattle manure was blamed recently for three deaths and the sickening of nearly 200 people with a deadly E. coli strain of bacteria. Contaminated lettuce, hamburger and juice are being recalled nationwide, and, as a result, Maine consumers are questioning the safety of what they eat.
Could a similar, sickening harvest happen here?
Of course, is the answer, and it already has.
In 1998, an elderly Washington County woman died from eating contaminated ground beef that had been recalled by Shaw’s Supermarkets the week before.
A Piscataquis County child, whose caretaker had been infected with E. coli through vegetables fertilized with fresh manure, died in the early 1990s.
More recently, a group of Boy Scouts in the Bangor area became ill after eating iceberg lettuce, and tomatoes sickened a number of people in southern Maine.
Dozens of central Maine children were made ill in 1993 by apples used to make cider at a high school fair. The apples were “drops,” picked from the ground in an orchard where cows roamed.
More than 400 cases are reported each year in Maine of food-borne illnesses, a statistic officials say is grossly underrepresentative of actual cases. Those same officials say that Maine’s locally grown food is among the safest in the nation.
“Maine’s fruit and vegetable growers in Maine are responsible, careful producers,” David Gagnon, director of the Maine Department of Agriculture’s Quality Assurance Division, said this week. “Our food is incredibly safe.”
Dora Mills, Maine’s public health director, said consumers shouldn’t be afraid of their food supply.
“We know so much more about what to do to prevent these risks,” she said. “We should be more fearful of our kitchen sponge than what’s going on at the farm.”
People ingested E. coli and likely died in years past because scientists and health providers didn’t know what it was, Mills said. “Food-borne outbreaks have been with us forever,” she said.
But in today’s centralized food production and distribution system, she added, what would have been a small outbreak in years past now is spread to 20 states overnight.
“It is unrealistic to expect a sterile food supply,” Mills said. “But it is very clean, and we do have evidence that most food-borne illnesses come from the mishandling of food in people’s kitchens.”
State epidemiologist Kathleen Gensheimer said Tuesday that Maine consumers have an additional advantage of being able to buy directly from local farms through farm stands, farmers markets and other farm programs.
“This is certainly helpful,” she said. “Buy local food and know your farmer and their farming practices.”
What makes us sick
In the federal investigation into the tainted spinach, investigators have cautioned that they are far from pinpointing a direct link between cattle droppings and spinach They and other experts list many possible factors that could have spread the bacterium, including wild boars, irrigation water and even dust.
At this point, federal officials are not saying that E. coli DNA was absorbed into the spinach but rather was found on the leaves.
Escherichia coli is a usually harmless bacterium that normally lives in the guts of animals, including humans. A new and pathogenic strain called E. coli O157:H7 was identified in 1982. It now causes 73,000 cases of infection and 61 deaths in the United States each year.
Most illnesses caused by E. coli have been associated with undercooked, contaminated ground beef. But if contaminated manure gets into irrigation water or is used in fertilizer, it can get onto fresh produce or into the water supply.
Gensheimer said that although the recent E. coli spinach illness affected three people in Maine, consumers shouldn’t focus on just one organism. There is a whole soup of bacteria out there waiting to attack food and spawn illness: E. coli, salmonella, cryptosporidium, Staphylococcus aureus, and Campylobacter jejuni are five common strains.
“There are many that can be transmitted,” she said. “It is not necessarily safer to eat lettuce than it is to eat spinach. It is the consumers’ best practices in purchasing, storing, preparing and cooking that food that can make the difference.”
But, she admitted, “there are no guarantees in life. We have to all work together to examine all the factors of getting the food to the table.”
A critical factor in Maine’s food safety is the small size of its agriculture operations, Don Flannery of the Maine Potato Board maintains. “Smaller operations enable greater control,” he said this week.
“One thing Maine has is good growers who use good farming practices,” Flannery said. “We don’t have the mass production here that goes on in other places like California. Even if an Aroostook County farmer grows 1,000 acres of potatoes, that is nothing in the scheme of things nationally.”
Gagnon of the Maine agricultural department agreed.
“Because Maine’s farms are mostly family farms, [the Maine Department of Agriculture], as the inspection agency, is much more closely connected with the growers,” he said.
Gensheimer cautioned, however, that “small doesn’t mean safe. It just means the impact is less.” She said that the farm-to-table concept means that there is a heavy responsibility for food safety from the farm right down to the consumer.
“Whether it is the farmer who is irrigating with manure-contaminated water or the consumer who puts their lettuce in the refrigerator under a plate dripping with meat juices,” Gensheimer said, “neither can be held totally responsible for food safety, yet each must do their part.”
Some consumers question whether organic food is safe from bacterial contamination since most organic farmers used manure as a fertilizer. State officials maintain that organic produce and meat are just as safe as conventionally grown products.
“It is definitely not less safe if the farmer is using aged manure, rather than green manure,” Gagnon said, which is standard practice. Most organic farmers compost all manure before it is spread on fields.
The meat and potatoes
Flannery said Maine potatoes are the safest in the nation because of the small size of Maine’s farms and the lack of major irrigation.
Scientists, meanwhile, have narrowed the cause of the spinach E. coli outbreak to fields irrigated with manure-contaminated water.
“In Maine, we are a little bit different,” Flannery said. “We look at irrigation as a supplement. We might use 2 inches [of water] in a dry year while they use 50 to 60 inches in other places. Less irrigation means our risks are greatly diminished.”
Maine potatoes are pulled from the fields dirty and stored dirty, Flannery said. “They’d never keep if they were washed,” he said. For table potatoes, most buyers require strict growing and handling standards and practices, and there is a system in place to trace each potato back to the field it came from.
Once they are shipped, individual processing plants are faced with their own strict standards, Flannery said.
Fecal matter in the potato fields is not even an issue, he said.
“We just don’t have the cows up here in Aroostook County. Raw manure is not used here,” he said. Small farmers may apply manure to rotational crops planted in the fall, such as small grains, but never directly when potatoes are growing.
Dr. Henrietta Beaufait oversees the Maine Meat and Poultry Inspection program, established in June 2003. Since then, rigorous testing of the six state-licensed slaughter facilities has failed to turn up a single positive test for E. coli or salmonella in any hanging carcass.
“We are doing a very good job,” Beaufait said this week. “We had our first federal audit last April, and the tests came back reflecting excellent sanitation.”
Beaufait said processors not only are held to high standards; they also are forced to analyze their procedures daily.
The bottom line, however, is that no meat can be sterile going out the door, she said. “We reduce as many pathogens as we can, and then the consumer reduces them further by cooking.”
Right now, all Maine meat processors are handling raw products. Should any of them break into the ready-to-eat market, a whole new set of rules kicks in, Beaufait said.
Eggs also need to be handled correctly, according to Gensheimer. Unbroken, clean, fresh eggs may contain salmonella bacteria, although the number is small.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bacteria can be on the outside of an egg’s shell. That’s because the egg leaves the hen’s body through the same passageway as feces, and that’s why eggs are washed and sanitized at the processing plant.
Contamination of eggs also may be due to bacteria within the hen’s ovary or oviduct before the shell forms around the yolk and white. It is also possible for eggs to become infected by salmonella fecal contamination through the pores of the shells after they’re laid. To be safe, eggs must be properly handled, refrigerated, and cooked.
Dr. Beth Calder of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension conducts research and outreach education with the food industry, including shelf-life studies.
“We have an Extension Nutrition, Food Preservation, Food Safety Call Team which seems to work very well,” she said this week. This team has worked with quite a few growers, especially the blueberry industry, to ensure that good agricultural practices are followed. “The blueberry industry is quite proactive about tracking bacterial counts, pathogenic bacteria and processing techniques to lower bacterial counts,” Calder said.
In addition, UMCE has a number of vegetable specialists that help growers with good agricultural practices, or GAP. “Having growers follow GAP plans will help them avoid the situation that occurred with spinach growers in California,” Calder said.
. There are hundreds of varieties of Escherichia coli. The one most recently identified in the spinach deaths is E. coli O157:H7, the most deadly strain.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that strain is a leading cause of food-borne illness and lives in the healthy intestines of cattle, deer, goats and sheep.
Although most strains of E. coli are harmless, E. coli O157:H7 produces a powerful toxin that can cause severe illness. It first was recognized in 1982 when it was traced to contaminated hamburger. Since then, more infections in the United States have been caused by eating undercooked ground beef than by any other food – including produce.
Infection with E. coli often leads to bloody diarrhea and occasionally to kidney failure. People can become infected with E. coli O157:H7 in a variety of ways. Though most illness has been associated with eating undercooked, contaminated ground beef, people also have become ill from eating contaminated bean sprouts or fresh leafy vegetables such as spinach.
Person-to-person contact in families and child care centers also is a known mode of transmission. In addition, infection can occur after drinking raw milk and after swimming in or drinking sewage-contaminated water.
. Salmonella lives in the intestinal tracts of humans and animals and often is found in raw or undercooked foods, such as poultry, eggs and meat. It also can be found in unpasteurized milk.
. Staphylococcus aureus, or staph bacteria, are found on our skin, in infected cuts and pimples, and in our noses and throats. Staph can multiply rapidly at warm temperatures to produce a toxin that causes illness. Staph bacteria prefer cooked food high in protein. They also grow in foods high in sugar or salt.
. Campylobacter jejuni may be present in raw or undercooked meat, poultry or shellfish. Other sources include unpasteurized milk, untreated drinking water and infected pets.
. Cryptosporidium is a microscopic parasite that may be found in drinking water and recreational water.
How to protect yourself
Food experts have long known that leafy vegetables are susceptible to pathogens, hosting more fecal bacteria than other produce. In laboratories, pathogens live for weeks on leafy greens, thriving even as the vegetables wilt. In soils, they survive for months.
Hamburger is much more susceptible than other cuts of red meat, since bacteria could be spread throughout the product as meat is ground together .
Taking precautions while shopping and once the food is brought home can protect consumers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests:
. Wash all produce after it comes home and before preparation.
. Cook ground beef until you see no pink anywhere, and don’t taste small bites of raw ground beef while you’re cooking. Don’t put cooked hamburgers on a plate that had raw ground beef on it. Cook all hamburgers to at least 155 degrees F. A meat thermometer can help test hamburgers.
. Defrost meats in the refrigerator or microwave. Don’t let meat sit on the counter to defrost.
. Wash all meat before cooking and cook meat, fish and eggs until well done.
. Do not cross-contaminate countertops or utensils. Use bleach or federally approved anti-bacterial cleaners to clean between cutting meat and using the counter, utensils or cutting board for other ingredients.
. Serve grilled food on a clean plate, not the one used to bring the raw meat to the grill.
. Keep eggs refrigerated, cook eggs until yolks are firm, and cook foods containing eggs thoroughly.
. Wash hands frequently during meal preparation and always before eating.
For more information about E. coli and food safety, check these resources: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration at www.fda.gov/oc/opacom/hottopics/spinach; The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at www.cdc.gov/foodborne/ecolispinach; the Maine Bureau of Health at www.maine.gov/dhhs/boh/