We know healthy foods, dense with nutrients and fresh as possible are the way to go in our diets. Still, there have been many food recalls this summer due to green foods, such as romaine lettuce, being contaminated with E.coli. Escherichia coli are commonplace bacteria that are harmless, as long as they stay where they’re supposed to be–inside the intestines of mammals. These bacteria produce the Shiga toxin. Shiga toxin doesn’t cause illness when it’s contained within the intestines, but if ingested by humans, Shiga causes cramps, headaches, nausea and bloody diarrhea. Rarely, it can cause kidney and pancreatic damage. E. coli infection resolves within a week or so, but it’s a painful and debilitating illness. Although not usually fatal, keeping well-hydrated during such an illness is essential due to excessive fluid loss.
E. coli gets into our food via several paths. One method of transmission involves meat that comes into contact with animal or human feces. Feces is loaded with E. coli due to its presence in the gut, where it’s a harmless denizen of the lower digestive tract. Vegetables also are vulnerable to fecal contamination. Romaine lettuce, with its many folded, crinkled leaves, can hide dirt that’s loaded with E. coli.
Salmonella (S. enteritidis, S. typhimurium) is another bacteria family that lives in the intestinal tract of humans and animals. It’s a bit more robust than E. coli, and is often associated with eggs. Egg or milk products like whey can be dried and used as a food flavoring, thus transmitting salmonella. Salmonella produces symptoms similar to E. coli, with nausea, vomiting, severe stomach cramps and diarrhea. Such and infection lasts about 3 days to a week. Both salmonella and E. coli are generally not lethal, as long as they remain outside the bloodstream. If these bacteria do cross into the bloodstream, blood poisoning from the infection can be fatal.
In general, hygienic practices in food cultivation and preparation eliminate the risk of contaminated bacteria. However, as this summer’s many food recalls demonstrates, it’s far from impossible for contaminated food to make it to your plate. Some overall guidelines to reduce this risk include vigorous washing of vegetables from the market, regardless of how clean they look. Bacteria are vanishingly tiny, but can be removed by a fresh water rinse.
Hand washing before and during food prep is essential. Any cloth used in or around food prep areas should be put into a dirty clothes receptacle and not used for different dishes. Cooking food to their recommended safe temperatures will also eliminate the risk of food-borne bacterial illness.