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ISU expert: U.S. shouldn't worry about deadly E. coli outbreak in Europe

By Heather Thorstensen

Date Modified: 06/23/2011 8:56 AM

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AMES, Iowa — The people getting sick or dying from a super toxic strain of E. coli bacteria in Europe are caught in a very large outbreak, but American consumers shouldn't be concerned about the domestic food supply, says a former USDA deputy under secretary for food safety.

"At this point, we don't have any evidence that that particular strain is in this country," said Scott Hurd.

While the European outbreak is significant, it is affecting a small portion of the world's 6 billion people and is not considered an epidemic, said Hurd, an associate professor of epidemiology at Iowa State University's College of Veterinary Medicine.

According to Associated Press reports on June 13, the outbreak had made more than 3,000 people sick and killed 36. German officials said a good sign was the number of new cases was slowing down.

Some of the strain's victims had developed a severe complication that affects the blood, kidneys and nervous system.

Cases of the O104:H4 strain were traced back to the northern part of Germany, near Hamburg. Officials declared that sprouts from a farm there carried the bacteria. Manure, used to fertilize the ground where vegetables were grown, was a suspected source.

"The thing is keep in mind is E. coli is a bacteria that comes in feces," Hurd said.

The recommendation that people avoid eating cucumbers, tomatoes and leafy salads was lifted.

E. coli naturally resides in human beings and animals' gastrointestinal tract. Sometimes, rare strains develop that produce toxins and cause sickness or death. In livestock, ruminate animals such as sheep, cattle and deer seem to carry toxin-producing E. coli strains more often than others.

Livestock producers can use best management practices for sanitation and manure management to try to avoid the spread of any possible toxic E. coli strains into the food supply, said Hurd.

A vaccine for cattle specifically for the toxin-producing E. coli O157:H7 strain, the strain common in the United States, recently became available, he said. It will likely be used first in feedlot cattle but may also be useful in dairy animals.

People should practice food safety by washing all raw fruits and vegetables thoroughly, use commercial produce rinses or cook produce, Hurd said.

In the United States, one confirmed and four suspected cases of infection from the European strain have been reported. Four of these people recently traveled to Hamburg, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The fifth person is a family member of one of the other suspected cases. No deaths were reported.

Hurd knows of nothing that seems to be causing super toxic E. coli strains, though he has heard others blame industrial farming.

The European outbreak may spur discussion on irradiating more foods to eliminate harmful pathogens, he said.

He finds it interesting that some people in America have blamed E. coli-related outbreaks on the way farmers use antibiotics in livestock. Europe bans its farmers from using antibiotics to promote growth or prevent disease in their herds but their outbreak is still occurring.

The most notable E. coli outbreak in the U.S. took place in the early 1990s, when four children died and hundreds of others got sick after eating undercooked and contaminated meat from Jack in the Box restaurants, he said.

In the United States, a bigger culprit of food-caused illnesses has been Salmonella. According to a report released June 7 by the CDC, Salmonella infections haven't decreased in the past 15 years. Instead, they've increased 10 percent recently. During the same time, illnesses from E. coli O157 have been cut nearly in half and the overall rates of six foodborne infections dropped by 23 percent. Salmonella is the culprit behind half of the hospitalizations and deaths that occurred in the nine foodborne illnesses that the CDC tracks through its Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network.

While many blame meat for foodborne-related outbreaks in the United States, data indicate that most cases that can be traced back lead to vegetables, Hurd said.