In the wake of one death and many cases of food-borne illness related to contaminated spinach, UGA microbiologist Michael Doyle recommends avoiding commercially bagged greens and vegetables.
An internationally known expert on food-borne pathogens like E. coli 0157:H7, Doyle spent most of the past two weeks after the outbreak fielding reporter calls from across the nation.
The pathogen causes diarrhea, often with bloody stools. Most healthy adults can recover completely within a week, but some people develop a form of kidney failure called Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome. This condition usually occurs in young children, elderly people and others with low immune systems.
“Although this outbreak involves bagged spinach, previous E. coli and salmonella outbreaks have been traced to bagged lettuce, melons and tomatoes,” said Doyle, director of the UGA Center for Food Safety in Griffin.
The number of outbreaks may be increasing in part because of the way processors handle produce.
“Some processors have cut and bagged vegetable crops in the field,” Doyle said. “This increases the chance for contamination, especially in leafy crops like spinach, lettuce and other greens.”
E. coli can be transmitted to crops by manure used as fertilizer or by contaminated irrigation water.
To reduce the number of future outbreaks, the produce industry needs to develop critical control points or treatments throughout the harvesting and packing process to kill harmful bacteria, Doyle said. But he added that this would require a mandate by the federal government.
While the current outbreak is under investigation, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that consumers avoid eating bagged spinach and fresh spinach.
Cooking spinach to 160 degrees Fahrenheit will kill any harmful organisms. Washing, even in warm water, may not be enough to eliminate all of the bacteria that may have become embedded in the plant tissues when stalks or leaves are broken.
Doyle doesn’t recommend microwaving spinach, as microwave cooking can result in hot and cold spots.
“The cold spots can still contain live E. coli,” he said.