The Minnesota Department of Health is investigating seven suspected cases of E. coli infection linked to Taco John's restaurants in Albert Lea and Austin. Almost three dozen people in Iowa came down with suspected E. coli infections after eating at a Taco Johns in Cedar Falls.
There's no indication that these infections are linked to the E. coli outbreak (64 cases) related to Taco Bell restaurants in the Northeast, but the Centers for Disease control haven't ruled a connection out, either.
Investigators initially thought contaminated green onions were the source of the infections, but follow-up testing on the samples was negative for E. coli. So we still don't know what the contaminated food was. But fresh produce is a likely culprit.
And it's hardly the first time fresh produce has been implicated in outbreaks of food-borne disease. These latest cases follow hard on the heels of salmonella cases linked to tomatoes, and the nationwide E. coli outbreak linked to bagged spinach. (All in the last three months!)
"The number of produce-related outbreaks of food-borne illness has increased from 40 in 1999 to 86 in 2004, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Americans are now more likely to get sick from eating contaminated produce than from any other food item, the center said."
Why the increase?
Well, more people are eating fresh produce, especially pre-cut and packaged fruits and vegetables. Distribution has improved, as has electronic reporting of outbreaks. And the aging population of the US is more susceptible to food-borne disease. And produce is a particularly difficult challenge: with contaminated meat, cooking to the proper temperature will kill the bacteria that cause disease. (Food safety experts call this a "kill step.") But produce is often meant to be eaten raw—no kill step.
So what do we do?
Again, according to the Washington Post,
"Consumer advocates think that tougher mandatory food safety standards and stepped-up enforcement are the answer. The country's largest food distributors and restaurants are pursuing self-regulation, arguing that government rules can take years to put in place. Produce growers and packers have suggested a voluntary system with elements of mandatory oversight."
But none of these are ready to be implemented right away.
Some folks are advocating for better and more frequent inspection of processing plants by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but the agency is chronically short-staffed and underfunded. And the FDA doesn't have authority over food production at the farm level. Buyers such as Safeway and Albertsons have hired their own inspectors. But inspectors and food safety experts agree that there's no consistency because federal guidelines aren't specific enough.
The article says,
"'We don't have enough science to base those (guidelines) on to be comprehensive," said Kevin Reilly, a California food safety official who is participating in the investigation of the E. coli outbreak traced to bagged spinach. 'What's necessary is an agreed-upon set of agricultural practices. Instead of "Be aware of water quality," we need to say, "Test it with this frequency and in this fashion."'"
In the meantime, scientists are looking at various ways to kill potential contaminants without ruining the produce or having to cook it.
Unless something changes, there WILL be another outbreak.
My $0.02? I don't want to read any more stories about children or grandparents having kidney failure or even dying from E. coli infection. So I guess I'm all for killing off the bacteria, if we can. But part of me thinks, yes, I want safe food, but I also want CLEAN food. Even if eating poop can be made safe, I still don't want to eat poop!
What do you think? Do you worry about food safety? Do you rely on pre-cut and or packaged fruits and vegetables? What safety measures would you like to see? Any ideas about how we can improve the situation?