Stories tagged E. coli


hamburger: what is it really made from?
hamburger: what is it really made from?Courtesy PixelAndInk
No fries. I’m watching my diet.

Yeah, I said ammonia burger. Haven’t you heard that your favorite fast food beef gut –bomb was most likely treated with ammonia? It’s not like the teenage fry cook at the burger joint reaches under the counter and grabs the bottle of floor cleaner to splash on a sizzling grill. However, there is still extra ammonia used to treat a ‘portion’ of your burger. Just a little extra ammonia injected during a specially patented process that makes up a percentage of the meat to form a patty. That ‘portion’ is where I think the real story lies.

Over the last few months, the news wires have been releasing stories about this specially patented process, including leading breaks by the New York Times. The stories center on the company, Beef Products Inc. (BPI) located in South Dakota. BPI developed the procedure of treating beef trimmings with ammonia to reduce the presence of harmful bacteria such as salmonella and E. Coli. Some of their main customers include McDonald’s, Burger King, and local food conglomerate Cargill. BPI had performed so well during USDA inspections that by 2007 they were exempted from testing. Its customers have stood firmly by its side. Last summer, things changed when school outbreaks of salmonella resulted in a banning of BPI meat products in some states. The pressure is on the U.S. Department of Agriculture now to investigate any issues.

No one wants to eat meat products contaminated with E. Coli or salmonella. But the whole idea of eating something treated with ammonia just doesn’t sound safe. Was it too many years of Mr. Yuck stickers as a child? I realize ammonia is a naturally occurring substance and can be already present in meats. When I really began to search my inner self about this angst, I found that what truly bothered me was the product being treated. This ammonia process wasn’t used on all beef. Slaughterhouses don’t give the fated bovines an ammonia bath before packaging. This process only is used on beef trimmings. Just say those two words to yourself slowly… pause and contemplate. Beef Trimmings.

raw ground meat?: i'd guess that the pink slime is what holds it together.
raw ground meat?: i'd guess that the pink slime is what holds it together.Courtesy cobalt123
Described by one source as a “pink slime”, trimmings are the last vestiges of muscle tissue left from a good butchering. It has been separated from the ‘majority’ of bone, cartilage and connective tissue. It is then spun by centrifugal force to remove fat, pressed, screened for metal, frozen, chipped, and pressed into 60 pound blocks. In the end, it only need be 12% visible lean tissue to classify as trimmings. The USDA has standards on what constitutes both meat and trimmings. This scrap used to be regulated to pet food and cooking oil. Do we really need to be mixing some into each of our double cheeseburgers? I’d be curious to know what percentage of trimmings makes up that quarter pound patty. Take out the trimmings and we can skip the whole ammonia question.

Recent questions are being plumbed by many parties about these food safety issues. Requests for documents have been met with some resistance by BPI. They seek to block any release of the research done by the Iowa State professor who published supportive findings. Now the courtroom waltzes begin and the delay of answers drags on. I’m certain this won’t be the last we’ve heard of those tasty ammonia treated trimmings.

I think i'll change that order to a chicken sandwich. That's 'free-range' correct?


I just came across the following article in The Scientist. It made me say, are you serious!?!?!

The Scientist: NewsBlog:
Test a vax, fly to Mexico
Posted by Jef Akst
[Entry posted at 6th January 2010 03:00 PM GMT]

Want to go to Central America for free? All it takes is your participation in a clinical trial for a diarrhea vaccine. A patch worn on the arm can earn you a complimentary trip to one of nine cities in Mexico and Guatemala, courtesy of Intercell AG.

The Austrian drug company is recruiting 1800 volunteers for the phase III clinical trial of a vaccine against enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli -- a major cause of traveler's diarrhea, which affects about 20 million visitors to countries such as Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as illness in more than 200 million children living in those countries each year. If approved, it would be the first vaccine for traveler's diarrhea available in the US.

A couple years ago, we looked at the question of how researchers and companies decide on compensation for subjects' participation in clinical trials. But the trip offered by the Austrian company seems to be an entirely new recruitment tactic, the BMJ reports.

Intercell joined forces with Inclinix, Inc., a North Carolina-based clinical trial enrollment solutions provider, to devise a strategy including partnerships with major travel and tourism websites, as well as a variety of social networking outlets, including Twitter and YouTube. "Social communication avenues allow Inclinix to reach a unique audience," Diane Montross, director of patient recruitment for Inclinix, told Medical News Today. "We are defining the next patient recruitment landscape."

In addition to the flight to Central America, participants will receive at least six nights of three star accommodations, pre-paid mobile phones, welcome kits with useful travel tools, and $1,500 in cash upon completion of the study. Participants will be given either the active vaccine or a placebo before travel, give blood within 48 hours of arrival, keep a stool diary throughout their trip, and provide additional blood and stool samples if they develop diarrhea.

For more information go to the TREK Research Study site.


Richard Lenski (top) and Jeffrey Barrick view bacteria cultures in Lenski's lab.: They have watched the bacteria's DNA evolve over 40,000 generations.
Richard Lenski (top) and Jeffrey Barrick view bacteria cultures in Lenski's lab.: They have watched the bacteria's DNA evolve over 40,000 generations.Courtesy Michigan State University / photo by G.L. Kohuth

Sometimes you’ll hear people cast doubts on evolution because no one has ever seen it happen. As if that’s some sort of great insight. No one has eve “seen” atomic fusion, either, but the fact that the Sun was shining this morning is pretty strong evidence that, yep, it happens. No one has ever “seen” gravity. Seen gravity’s effects, sure. But seen gravity itself? Like Ms. Ono once asked, Who Has Seen The Wind?

Evolution used to be in the same boat. The effects of evolution are visible everywhere, in every cell of every living thing on the planet. But seeing the actual process of evolution? That was another matter.

Until now. Scientists at Michigan State University (go Spartans!) have been growing bacteria in bottles for the past 21 years. Every so often, they would freeze a sample for later study. Well, “later” is now. DNA sequencing and computer analysis have advanced to the state where they can readily map the genome of each sample. And guess what? The bugs evolved exactly as evolution says they should. Mutations in the genome pop up at random intervals. Mutations that help the bug survive—like make more efficient use of food, or fend off disease—get passed on to future generations, and eventually spread through the entire colony.

Twenty-one years may not seem like enough time for a species to change. But, as Mia Sorvino said in the truly awful 1997 movie Mimic, think generations, not time. In the two decades of study, the little bacteria went through 40 thousand generations—the equivalent of roughly 800,000 years in human terms. Plenty of opportunity for evolution to do it’s thang.

And the experiment continues. Understanding mutations in bacteria might help us understand the mutations that lead to some forms of cancer. In recent generations, the rate of mutation has increased; the scientists would like to know why.

Richard Lenski, the scientist heading up the research, has put together a video explaining his work.

E. coli
E. coliCourtesy CDC/Janice Haney Carr

A Michigan State University researcher has developed a working vaccine for a strain of E. coli that kills 2 million to 3 million children each year in the developing world.

Enterotoxigenic E. Coli is responsible for 60 percent to 70 percent of all E. coli diarrheal disease and is responsible for what is commonly called traveler’s diarrhea.

Read more in Science Daily


You'll never guess what's in the can: This isn't Sable Sheets, by the way. Just some other pro-sniffer.
You'll never guess what's in the can: This isn't Sable Sheets, by the way. Just some other pro-sniffer.Courtesy Thomas Hawk
Oops. I forgot y’all are too cool to read the word “poopy” now and again. Maybe next time I’ll drop an S-bomb on y’all. Or I could write “sulfurous compounds,” or skatole, or indole. But where would that get us? Nowhere very graphic, certainly.

So, how would you like it if it was your job to sniff out human feces?

Well, I’m sorry, but the job has already been taken. Taken, no less, by a member of a group whose mission in this country seems to be to take jobs from honest, upstanding Americans. That’s right: dogs.

This particular dog is named Sable Sheets, and he hails from Lansing, Michigan. (He doesn’t actually have a last name, being a dog, so I gave him one.) Sable is a professional sniffer of crap. If sniffing human feces were an Olympic sport, Sable would be a gold medalist, if it were a martial art, Sable would be a ninja. It is a serious pursuit—Sable sniffs for the government.

Since he was a puppy, Sable has been trained to recognize certain smells: the odors of water contaminants. Earlier this week, we went over just how great at smelling dogs are. Sable needs to be a great smeller, because not only does he have to recognize chemical contaminants, like those that come from household detergents, but he also has to be able to distinguish animal feces from human feces. A little animal feces in the water is gross, but if Sable can detect human feces it’s a sign that there could be a failed and leaking septic system nearby. Aside from the other obvious issues involved with poop in your water, leaking septic systems can lead to E. coli contaminating rivers and streams. And we don’t want that.

Municipal governments hire Sable and his handler, a former K-9 officer, to check out catch basins, outflows, and manhole covers. If Sable gets a hint of duke, he barks and looks at his handler.

E. coli bacteria can, of course, be detected without the help of a dog, but only with the help of laboratory equipment. To find and test all possible sources of E. coli contamination in a water system would take a tremendous amount of time and effort. A dog like Sable—who, at the moment, might be one of a kind—can speed up the effort greatly. He’s like a miniature, mobile, furry lab. Based on the sample’s that have been sent to the lab on account of Sable’s barks, the dog is about 87 percent accurate.

His handler adds that Sable is “getting better; getting more refined.” Sort of like a connoisseur of fine wines, really, but with… you know.


For decades, scientists have been growing microbes in their labs and watching them evolve new traits. Most of the changes tend to be simple things, like an increase in size or growth rate.

But Dr. Richard Lenski of Michigan State University (just 2 miles from my house!) recently witnessed a major evolutionary leap--as it was happening. Twenty years ago, he took a colony of E. coli, a common bacteria, and split it into 12 identical populations. He’s been watching ever since to see if the strains evolve in different directions.

A few years ago, one of them did. One of his study strains suddenly evolved the ability to eat citrate, a molecule found in citrus fruits. No other E. coli in the world can do this, not even the other strains in Dr. Lenski’s lab. Even given several extra years and thousands of extra generations, the other strains are still citrate-averse. What’s more, the bacteria evolved this mutation entirely on their own, without any prodding or genetic manipulation from the researchers.

Lenski had saved frozen reference samples of all of his strains at regular intervals. Going back and growing new cultures from these samples, he again finds that only those from one strain ever evolve the citrate-eating habit – and only those sample less than about 10 years old. Lenski figures that some mutation happened around that time in one strain – and one strain only – that would later lead to citrate eating. He and his lab are now working on figuring out exactly what that mutation is.


Transmission electron micrograph of Escherichia coli O157:H7: Courtesy CDC
Transmission electron micrograph of Escherichia coli O157:H7: Courtesy CDC
A recent NY times article looks into various approaches underdevelopment to prevent or treat food poisoning by the bacteria E. coli O157:H7. These approaches include:
Prevention – as we saw last fall, this does not always work. This is especially true with fresh produce.
Cattle vaccines – it reduces but does not eliminate the E. coli found in manure. Would this give us a false sense of security? What would the incentive be for farmers to vaccinate their herds? Cows don’t get sick from the bacteria so it would have to be a mandate or altruism.
Cattle antibiotics – feeding antibiotics to cows raises concerns of creating more antibiotic resistant pathogens.
Industrial chemicals – feed cows sodium chlorate which the O157 bacteria converts to it to sodium chlorite which poisons the pathogen
Bacterial-killing viruses – these are viruses that infect and kill only bacteria.
Friendly bacteria – is also known as probiotics. This approach feeds cattle friendly bacteria to displace the O157 bacteria. It is already sold to aid cattle digestion and some believe it reduces the amount of O157 bacteria in the manure
Human vaccines – are still years from the market. Early testing looks promising. Testing the effectiveness will be difficult. Should we be vaccinating every child in order to protect a small number? And would this make us lax with our food handling techniques. That will lead to other food and water borne infections.
Human drugs for treatment – outbreaks are rare and sporadic so these would be hard to test in clinical trials. The clues that signal an infection don’t start until 3-4 days after ingestion of the bacteria so it might also be hard to diagnose and treat the infection in a timely manner.
Monoclonal antibodies – these are a synthetic version of your body’s own infection fighters. They seem to be working in animals and with early human safety trials. But the cost is prohibitive to test them in order to prevent hemolytic uremic syndrome. This would start working once the toxin is already in the bloodstream so there are questions about its effectiveness.

We will probably see a few of these techniques used in parallel. What do you think is the best approach and why?


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.

Bagged lettuce: Packaged produce, like this lettuce, makes it easier for us to  consume the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables. But packaged, fresh produce is increasingly linked to outbreaks of food-borne illness. (Photo courtesy Michael Dietsch)
Bagged lettuce: Packaged produce, like this lettuce, makes it easier for us to consume the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables. But packaged, fresh produce is increasingly linked to outbreaks of food-borne illness. (Photo courtesy Michael Dietsch)

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!)

According to the Washington Post,

"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.

(For more on the SOURCES of E. coli in fresh produce, see the thread on the September spinach outbreak.)

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?

Fresh spinach: Courtesey ranjit
Fresh spinach: Courtesey ranjit

The FDA is warning individuals to think twice before consuming bagged spinach. An E. coli outbreak has been linked to fresh spinach. E. coli depending on its severity, can have adverse affects.