Eat your spinach?
Spinach is touted as one of the most healthful of foods, and more people have been eating raw spinach salad in recent years, as consumers have heeded the advice of nutrition experts to load up with dark, leafy greens. Unfortunately, incidents of food poisoning from fresh produce have risen, too. Each year, E. coli 0157:H7 causes 73,000 illnesses and 60 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During the latest outbreak, which has investigators scouring California spinach fields for clues, at least 114 people nationwide have been infected with a virulent strain of E. coli bacteria from eating fresh spinach; one 77-year-old woman has died, and 60 are hospitalized. Federal officials say the number of victims could rise through the week, as more cases are reported.
What's a health-conscious consumer to do? U.S. News has gleaned advice from the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration, and food safety experts.
E. coli outbreaks are usually associated with inadequately cooked ground beef. Why is this bug showing up in produce?
E. coli is present in the intestines of healthy cattle and in manure; it can contaminate meat in the slaughtering process. Heating food to 160 degrees kills the bacteria; that's why the federal government says to cook hamburger until it's no longer pink.
But leafy vegetables are now the second-leading source of E. coli infections in the United States. Since 1995, there now have been 20 known outbreaks from lettuce or spinach. At least eight were traced to California's Salinas Valley, the nation's main lettuce-growing region.
As a result, state and federal health officials sent teams to investigate farms in the valley in 2005 and 2006. But they haven't been able to figure out how the bacteria is getting from cattle to lettuce and spinach. Possible sources include inadequately composted manure; contaminated irrigation water; or contaminated water in used by processors to wash and bag greens.
How would I know if I've eaten contaminated spinach?
You'd be very sick! People infected with E. coli 0157:H7, the bug causing the current outbreak, suffer from abdominal cramps and bloody diarrhea for five to 10 days. Antibiotics don't reduce the severity or duration of symptoms. Most people recover on their own, but 2 to 7 percent of patients come down with hemolytic-uremic syndrome, a severe form of kidney failure that can kill or cause long-term health problems. Small children and the elderly are most vulnerable. In the current outbreak, 16 percent of the patients have developed HUS. The take-home message: This is one bad bug.
It can take up to a week after eating E. coli-tainted produce for symptoms to appear. The CDC recommends that anyone who develops diarrhea after eating fresh spinach go to the doctor and ask for a stool test for E. coli 0157. If you've eaten raw spinach recently and don't have diarrhea, the CDC says, you don't need to see a doctor.
Is organic produce safer?
Organically grown food is produced without synthetic pesticides or herbicides. But the same potential sources of E. coli contaminationcow manure and contaminated water at the farm or processing plantcould taint organic produce, too.