Thursday, June 30, 2011


It has just been reported that the German and French deadly E.coli outbreaks of this year may have both originated in sprout seeds imported from Egypt. European investigators have cautiously fingered contaminated fenugreek seeds. Apparently these were imported by a single German importer, which then distributed them to other companies, which then sold them to the two farms involved. At least one of these farms has reportedly had to close (the one near Hamburg, Germany) as a result.

The leaders in the investigation have included experts from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) in Sweden and from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in Italy. They have issued a joint statement saying: "The tracing back is progressing and has thus far shown that fenugreek seeds imported from Egypt either in 2009 and/or 2010 are implicated in both outbreaks." I am sure that the previously accused British seeds distributor (see earlier post) has issued a corporate sigh of relief.

But is it unusual for imported seeds to cause outbreaks? No, not at all. Contaminated seeds are the usual cause of contaminated sprouts (see previous 2 posts) and imported seeds have caused a number of sprout-linked outbreaks in several countries over the years. Alfalfa seeds imported from Australia have caused outbreaks in sprouts in the UK, Finland and Sweden. Sprout seeds from The Netherlands have been identified as the cause of outbreaks in the U.S. There are many more cases.

Let's see what more pops up in the next few days.

To your good health.


The Idaho (USA) produce company whose sprouts were found to be contaminated with Salmonella bacteria this week is not going along with approved U.S. food safety policies. Yes, it has halted production of those sprouts, but it is refusing to recall any products already out there on store shelves and at restaurants in Idaho, Montana, and Washington state.

As a result, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has had to itself issue an alert to consumers, advising them not to eat Evergreen Produce alfalfa sprouts or spicy sprouts (see Alerts column on this blog). Of course, as has been suggested,the FDA could do the recall itself, but by the time it gets organized for this new power it's been given, there may be nothing left to recall. After all, big bureaucracies are unwieldy and slow to move and sprouted seeds have a short shelf-life.

Although I don't agree with what they are doing - or rather, not doing, I have to admit that I do understand why Evergreen has taken a stand against public health interests. Recalling products is expensive, and the chances are that they don't have insurance for this. During the current recession, many fresh vegetable and sprout producers have found their insurance rates going through the roof while sales have gone down.

Besides, they feel they have been careful, followed the rules, and they conduct both regular water testing and sprout sample testing of their own - with negative results for these bacteria. To them, the FDA has simply not proven that their product is "bad." "It's all speculation, assumptions," the co-owner said in an interview. The FDA inspection of the facility, and the test taken, have so far not turned up the bacteria involved.

It could well be that inspection and testing never turns up the contaminant at the sprout grower's. That is not unusual. It has happened in several instances, including at least one this year. I spoke with the owner of this other sprout farm involved, while the FDA was still crawling all over his plant. He was in tears. He listed everything he was doing. And believe me, he really was going beyond what was required, to keep his sprouts safe. But, unlike the owners of Evergreen Produce, he wanted to make 100% sure that he protected those who sold and ate his sprouts, so he immediately put out a recall anyway.

It is quite possible that both Evergreen and other accused sprout growers in the U.S., France and Germany, are totally blameless . Their plant and equipment could be clean, the workers healthy, and the water used free of contaminants. The problem could be with the seeds they innocently bought (see previous post). Decontamination measures may not have completely worked completely (they often don't - see post on 7/3 - "Accused Sprout Farmer Could be Innocent").

Albeit, if their sprouts are indeed found to be contaminated, they will suffer enormous financial losses, and maybe even lose their business. Now you can see why I feel sorry for them. Farming is a tough business. I know, I've done it.

To your good health!



Outbreaks of foodborne illness from sprouted seeds are common. They have occurred since the 1970's, all over the world. The second largest outbreak in terms of illnesses caused, and the most vicious in terms of the seriousness of those illnesses, occurred this year in northern Germany. Even as the Hamburg-Germany outbreak gradually winds down, new ones have started in France and the United States.

How do sprouts become so risky? Most of the time it is suspected that the actual seeds were the cause. That is, it wasn't contaminated equipment at the sprout farm, or water used during sprout germination, or some disease-carrying worker on the farm or at the packing plant. This means that the sprout grower was also an innocent victim. The bacteria were there already when the seeds were purchased. They had picked up these bacteria from their own growing environment.

However, the chances are that bacteria will be present in fairly low numbers in the seeds themselves. The dry conditions of an ungerminated seed are not ideal for the rapid multiplication of bacteria. But all this changes when the seeds are moistened during pre-germination. Multiplication speeds up even more in the few days during which the seeds germinate into sprouts. The bacteria happily take advantage of all those great nutrients in the seeds and the sprouts and multiply and multiply.

Whereas one teaspoon of seeds may just have contained a hundred or so E.coli, Salmonella, Listeria or other bacteria, after germination, there can turn into a million or more. Those few in the dry seeds may not have been enough to make someone ill, but the large numbers in the sprouted seeds are.

At present, we know of no way to make sprouts completely safe without destroying the seed's power to germinate (see next post). That's the sprout version of Catch 22.

To your good health,


Monday, June 27, 2011


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning consumers about a new outbreak in sprouted seeds in the U.S. I have been wondering when we would get the next one here, as we haven't heard of any for over a month.

Before you get too nervous - no, it is not the same bacteria as in Germany and France (a very toxic E.coli). It's just a plain old Salmonella bacteria - what we usually get in our sprouted seeds over here. But, having said that, it is one of the more nasty Salmonella -S.Enteritidis. And, I gather it is a fairly heavy contamination - not just a few bacteria, but loads of them - a much heavier contamination than usual. A heavier bacterial load means more chance of becoming seriously ill.

Illnesses are indeed occuring in several states - at least 20 so far in Idaho, Montana, New Jersey, North Dakota and Washington State. Expect more.

The FDA has advised consumers not to eat Evergreen Produce brand alfalfa sprouts and spicy sprouts. They are being sold in 4 oz. or 16 oz. plastic bags labeled “Evergreen Produce” or “Evergreen Produce Inc."

I would suggest you avoid any of Evergreen Produce's sprout products for the time being, while we see if others are contaminated as well. No doubt the FDA is busily testing everything. Since the company is refusing to recall any of them, they are still out there being sold (I'll elaborate on this in my next post).

To your good health,



There is more and more conjecture that the huge German outbreak of food borne illness and the more recent French one could be linked. Both have been traced to sprouted seeds. Both involve an unusually toxic strain of the bacterium, E.coli. In the case of the German outbreak, centered around Hamburg and hopefully winding down, it is now reported that 47 people have died, almost all in Germany. In the case of the French one, no fatalities have been reported as yet, but seven people are still seriously ill and hospitalized, one of them in intensive care and one having treatment for kidney problems.

It is highly unlikely that these geographically separated outbreaks are linked through means such as contaminated irrigation or rinsing water, wildlife, improperly cleaned equipment, or improperly composted manure. But there are two ways that they could be linked (note: the link has not yet been proven). The possibility being focused on by the French authorities is that both the German and the French growers used contaminated seeds, probably from the same British seed company (see 3 posts for June 25). If so, that would follow a pattern that has caused nationwide sprout-linked outbreaks in the U.S. where several sprout growers with contamination problems had all used contaminated seeds from the same source.

However, there is also at least one more possibility: a worker at the French grower's could have had a case of the German E.coli 0104, and become a carrier, later contaminating the French sprouts. This can happen. People may no longer have symptoms of illness (or, may never have been really ill - "asymptomatic carriage") but continue to shed the E.coli bacteria for several weeks, or even months afterwards and pass it to others directly, or indirectly through surfaces or food - such as sprouts.

So if the two outbreaks are linked, which is it? We'll find out soon..

To your good health,

Sunday, June 26, 2011


Authorities in an increasing number of countries are coming out with the same warning: don't eat sprouted seeds raw. That applies to not just alfalfa, bean sprouts and other legume seeds, but also sprouted grain seeds and others such as mustard, radish, broccoli, sesame, fenugreek, and more.

Throughout the years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has repeatedly warned people at high risk not to eat sprouted seeds raw, and at times (as in 2009) elevated this warning to include everyone. The German government now has a similar warning out. The British FSA issued a revised and strengthened warning yesterday: "As a precaution, the Agency is advising that sprouted seeds should only be eaten if they have been cooked thoroughly until steaming hot throughout; they should not be eaten raw."

Sprouted seeds have been recognized as unsafe for decades because of the fact that they commonly carry disease-causing bacteria. Very few people in public health eat them raw for that reason. What has got governments particularly concerned is the recent huge and deadly German outbreak of a very rare and super-toxic strain of E.coli linked to bean sprouts. Now there is a much smaller outbreak of deadly E.coli in a suburb of Bordeaux in Germany, that is also being blamed on contaminated sprouted seeds. A less toxic E.coli was found in beet sprouts in the Netherlands earlier in June of this year. In the United States there are regular outbreaks linked to sprouted seeds, usually alfalfa, and most often, of Salmonella bacteria. In fact there were outbreaks in January, February, March and April of this year (see post of June 5).

Cooking would destroy most of these bacteria. But let's face it, sprouted seeds don't always taste as pleasant when cooked, and no longer add a decorative touch to food. I searched for ideas and recipes on line to see if there was any way to make cooked sprouted seeds appealing. Clearly some kinds of sprouts lend themselves to cooking better than others. Here are some ideas: azuki bean sprouts cooked in chili, cooked mung bean sprouts in miso soup, mung bean or alfalfa sprouts cooked in stir-fried vegetables, alfalfa sprouts cooked mixed in with sauteed potatoes, lentil sprouts cooked in lentil soup or lentil salad, garbanzo bean sprouts or soybean sprouts cooked in soup, alfalfa sprouts in baked goods.

Some recipes suggest very light cooking of the sprouted seeds: adding sprouts to a dish at the very last minute, and cooking for no more than 30 seconds. The results might be better from a taste, texture and visual appeal perspective, but such quick cooking may not always bring the sprouts to the temperature required to kill bacteria (165 degrees F), particularly if the dish is not stirred well. Note the above warning of the British FSA refers to thorough cooking "until they are steaming hot."

To your good health,


Saturday, June 25, 2011


The latest hot topic in our global food supply is the recent outbreak of E.coli food poisoning in a suburb of Bordeaux, France. There is fear that it is linked to the recent huge outbreak of super-toxic E.coli in northern Germany that originated in bean sprouts. According to French investigators and officials, the cause here is also raw sprouts. And, the seeds used by the French sprout grower came from a venerable British seed company, Thompson & Morgan, which has been around for more than a hundred and fifty years (and has a wonderful blog - with all kinds of useful advice).

According to Wikepedia this company distributes its catalogues not just in the UK, and France, but also in Germany - and in the U.S. These catalogues are available through mail or can be requested directly from the company by telephone or via their websites. The New York Times also reported today that their seeds are sold in the U.S. I do buy vegetable seeds, but do not recall ever purchasing any of their so can't say for sure.

Again IF this company is the source of the French outbreak (and maybe even the German one - and no one knows yet), and IF an outbreak in sprouted seeds also occurs in the U.S. (which I hope doesn't), it wouldn't be the first one we have had from imported sprout seeds. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) describes two sprout contamination incidents that occurred in the U.S. in 1995, both eventually traced to seeds imported from the Netherlands. There have been others.

Let's hope it's just another case of "Round up the usual suspects" (as in that memorable line from Casablanca) and it turns out in the end to be something the gazpacho cook did, which doesn't have international repercussions.

To your good health!


The UK industry and officials are denying it. But the French say it is true - or probably true. Seeds imported from Britain may have caused the latest (hopefully not E.coli 0104) sprout-linked outbreak in France. Is this going to be a modern-day Sprout Waterloo?

We will know in the next few days or weeks. In the meantime, France has halted the sale of fenugreek, mustard and arugula seeds from a British mail order seed and plant company, Thompson & Morgan. Apparently those sprouts on top of the delicious but deadly gazpacho at the Bordeaux charity dinner (where several of the recent victims ate) were grown with seeds from this company.

Company officials are saying it is more likely to have been something the French grower did or didn't do (since it is such a local outbreak - so far). But British authorities are being cautious anyway in protecting the eating public. Today (Saturday) they warned consumers against eating uncooked sprouts. The statement put out by Britain's Food Safety Agency advised that "sprouted seeds should only be eaten if they have been cooked thoroughly until steaming hot throughout." But it also noted that there haven't been any home-grown cases in the UK so far. This warning was just precautionary.

Even if it turns out to be something else (after all, a gazpacho has a lot of uncooked vegetables in it as well - including cucumbers, and this would not be the first time investigators jumped to a wrong conclusion), it is better to be safe than sorry.

Skip the sprouts in your salad, sandwich or soup. And if you are eating out, make a point of asking the restaurant to omit them.

To your good health,


It was bound to happen. No sooner do you think an outbreak is over, when it isn't over. It looks like the super-toxic strain of E.coli bacteria that was traced to sprouts grown in Germany, may also have cropped up in sprouts grown in France.

But the French (who saw what slow action did in Germany) are acting much more quickly than the Germans did - and hopefully not fingering the wrong culprit. Not only have sprouted seeds been identified as the suspect food item, but investigators have found that all but one of the people who are ill attended a charity event at a children's play center in a suburb of Bordeaux at which they ate gazpacho garnished with sprouts.
True, the German and French E.coli strains haven't been conclusively matched as yet (it takes a while), and other less-lethal E.coli have been known to turn up in sprouted seeds (as well as other foods) as well. In fact, there were at least 3,500 cases of E.coli reported last year in the EU, with some 93 of these in France (though not all may be linked to food). And there was a case of E.coli contaminated frozen hamburger meat in northern France just about a week ago (investigators say the two cases are not linked).

But what makes one suspect that this French outbreak and the German one might be linked is the high incidence of Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS) complications with kidney failure among adults who are ill. Only 8 illnesses have been reported in France so far, but of these, apparently 5 (or, 7 - depending on which news report you read) are hospitalized with life-threatening HUS. Even if we assume that the actual number of illnesses is much greater, this is clearly an unusually toxic E.coli - like the E.coli 0104:H4 that turned up in Northern Germany this spring. I hope not.

But if it is, what does this mean? It means that the bacteria was/is most likely in seeds themselves (although they are different kinds of sprouts). That is, the contamination did not come from water used by sprout growers for irrigation or washing, and the cause was not some bacteria-carrying worker or unsanitary conditions at the sprout grower's in Germany. I imagine that this grower is very relieved.

But it can also mean that there is more to come...We have not heard the end of this yet. Until the next post..

To your good health,

Friday, June 24, 2011


Among all the other problems it has caused (see previous post) this European outbreak of super-toxic E.coli 0104 bacteria decimated consumption of fresh vegetables - extending to fruit as well. You'll recall that cucumbers, and to a lesser extent, tomatoes and lettuce, were main suspects for a while, until sprouts (which are legumes) were found to be the culprit. People simply became afraid to even bite into an apple, let alone munch that unfairly maligned cucumber or tomato. A lot of this summer's crops was plowed under or fed to pigs, goats and other farm animals that like their veggies.

EU ministers of agriculture met earlier this month to discuss a way to compensate farmers and repair the image of fresh produce. One of the several proposals is to have a massive promotional campaign. Many such campaigns already exist, including the one by Freshfel Europe (the European Fresh Produce Association), which has been in existence since 2006 (see logo above).

Some countries also have their own. The “Apples from Germany” campaign had Germany's "apple queens" present baskets of apples to Chancellor Angela Merkel and other government ministers. Other aspects of the campaign were more fun - especially the touring “Apfel-o-Mat.” This was a highly popular photo booth, where anyone could have a funny photo taken with their favorite apple.

I also like the website launched by tomato and cucumber producers in France. It is targeted to children, with quizzes and games (see photo).
City children who have never seen a tomato plant can learn all about tomato production. The campaign also has a newsletter and online videos for adults. Then there are all those other campaigns in other countries to promote kiwi fruit or blueberries from South America or bananas or some other produce.

So if another campaign is launched, will it get demand back to where it was before this outbreak? I have been involved in a few of such campaigns, and well, the results vary.

Anyway, I have noticed that after a food-linked outbreak, people avoid the culprit food for a while, and then gradually go right back to eating it. The chances are that this will happen even before the EU figures out who is going to pay for it and the campaign gets off the ground.

To your good health - and eating those veggies!


Thursday, June 23, 2011


The E.coli 0104 outbreak is winding down, but it has left a lot of damage behind - political and economic as well as human.

There is still talk of Spain suing Germany over the "killer cucumber" claim which decimated the Spanish cucumber industry and affected other fresh vegetable exports.

A couple of days ago, Germany's Federal Parliamentary president visited Spain for the first time since the incident. But he said Germany is not ready to compensate Spain for the losses suffered, although he did say something about helping to restore international confidence is Spanish veggies (what - another Spanish cucumber munching photo op?).

And it wasn't just vegetable farmers and distributors and vendors in Spain who suffered massive losses, but in other countries as well - The Netherlands, UK and elsewhere. Half of the cucumber crop of the Netherlands is exported to Germany, and the losses have been reported at least at 9M euro a week, during the outbreak.

The UK Fresh Produce Consortium is up in arms, demanding full compensation for their "significant losses and a drop in consumption of salad products due to unfounded and premature claims made by the German authorities..." (quoting Nigel Jenney, Chief Executive of the FPC). I doubt they are going to get it either.

And then there are all the losses suffered by sprout growers and packers, not only in Germany - where people have been advised not to eat them raw- but also in other countries.

But what about all the human suffering - some of it long term? Let's not forget that apart from the misery of severe illness and fatalites, some people's health has been permanently damaged. A German expert, Dr. Helge Karch, at the University of Muster (quoted in today's New York Times, p.A5), who has been leading a team investigating the outbreak, expects that at least 100 of the victims of this outbreak will need kidney transplants or will have to undergo dialysis for the rest of their lives.

To your good health,

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Finally, that awful E.coli -104:H4 outbreak in Europe is winding down. Reports of cases are still coming in, because of reporting delays, but there are apparently few new illnesses.

Here are the latest numbers according to the World Health Organization (WHO) for June 20, as reported June 21. The total of illness linked to this outbreak is 3697, with all but 5 victims either having lived in or travelled to Germany. Of these, 814 people have developed Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS) - a high 22% rate. The most heavily affected have been adult women (I would assume this is because women eat more sprouts). Some 40 people have died. Most of the cases have been in Germany. Sweden and Denmark are next. WHO reports only 6 in UK and 5 in the U.S. If you want to check on your country or see the full breakdown, go to the WHO website ( and click on the link to the European outbreak. It should be updated regularly.

The culprit food has now (after some false starts) been identified as bean sprouts (but the window seems to have been left open to include other sprouts as well). People throughout Germany have been warned by the Robert Koch Institute (which is in charge of this mess) not to eat sprouts of any origin. The rare and very deadly bacterium that caused all this misery (as well as political fallout and economic problems) - and this is really a mouthful - has been identified as: "enteroaggregative verocytotoxin-producing E. coli (EAggEC VTEC) O104:H4."

Let's hope this is really the end. But now the experts are talking about the outbreak as a warning of similar things to come. Maybe this bacterium, maybe another. And yes, as we have seen, food poisoning can be very widespread, and these days, global in its reach. If a food like sprouts is the vehicle - which only a small percentage of people eat at all - what if it the hazardous item is something like lettuce or tomatoes, which almost everyone eats, often in raw form?

Frankly, I am not going to lose sleep over it. But let's eat as safely as we can. And I do hope that if we have another outbreak like this, anywhere in the world, the investigators and researchers will do a better job.

To your good health,


Sunday, June 19, 2011


We tend to think of green tea as a healthy drink. Initially, I found the taste a little difficult to become used to, but am now drinking a couple of cups a day. I have friends who drink ten cups or more. All those wonderful antioxidants that our bodies need! Not only has green tea been drunk for thousands of years in countries such as China, India, Thailand and Japan, but it has been used as a medicine to treat anything and everything, ranging from flatulence to heart conditions. Besides, it is supposed to be good for your complexion.

Now we are reading reports that some of the tea grown in Japan may be accumulating high levels of radionuclides from the crippled Fukushima Dachii nuclear power plant (see yesterday's post). The tea growers from Shizuoka Prefecture, where much of Japan's tea is grown, say this kind of concern is ridiculous. So do some members of the opposition party.

After all, dry tea is a concentrated product. When tea leaves are fresh, and therefore heavier, testing would show lower levels of unhealthy radionuclides such as cesium-137 and 134. And besides, when you add water to dry tea leaves, it becomes even more diluted, thus lowering levels of radionuclides to acceptable levels.

Yes, all this is probably true, but still, I can't say I like the idea of drinking my "healthy" green tea with a touch of nuclear contaminants.

And you had better not chew on the green tea leaves, just in case! Some people do. Not even in your chewing gum, or those delicious Trader Joe's green tea candies.

To your good health,


Saturday, June 18, 2011


Efforts continue to contain the situation at the crippled Fukushima Daichii nuclear power plant in Japan. I just looked at Ministry of Health's latest published results on testing of food for iodine, cesium-134 and cesium-137. I found the levels of radionuclides to be surpisingly low for the most part, although clearly some rivers (and fish) are becoming quite contaminated.

But the news hitting the wires is the discovery of high levels of radiation in a green tea shipment at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris yesterday. The tea had come from Japan's Shizuoka Prefecture. Apparently the detected level of the radionuclide cesium were 1,038 becquerels per kg of tea. This is about double the European Union's maximum allowed radioactive load in foods (cesium 134 and cesium 137). (But note - I have found no official statement.)

This Shizuoka Prefecture produces some 40% of Japan's green tea. Some ten days ago, the Prefecture announced that it had found levels of 679 becquerels of radioactive cesium per kilogram of tea from a producer 355 Km from the nuclear plant. The tea farmers in the area are very upset since their livelihoods are at stake. Shipment of tea from this producer was stopped, and testing expanded. But apparently some got through from somewhere. Or so it seems - if these reports are true.

But relax - customs officials detained the tea and it did not enter the marketplace. At least this shipment didn't. Who knows what other countries received some from the same or neighboring producers. I certainly know that here in the U.S. we import green tea from Japan. I just finished drinking some...

To your good health,



Humphrey Bogart said, " A hot dog at the ballpark is better than steak at the Ritz." But Consumer Reports calls them "tidy little bundles, of sodium, additives and fat." And that's not all. Add microbes to that list. They're not present all the time, but they do crop up often enough to create risks for people who are particularly vulnerable - children, older adults, the frail or seriously ill, and pregnant women.

We think of them as "cooked meat." But actually, they can carry a variety of bacteria, especially the dangerous Listeria monocytogenes. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) calls Listeria monocytogenes "a major public health risk." An estimated 1,600 Americans become seriously ill with listeriosis every year and 260 die from it (remember - such statistics are always an underestimation). The U.K. Food Standards Agency has also seen an increase over the past few years in England, Wales and Scotland, and to a lesser extent, in Northern Ireland. There has been a particularly notable rise among adults over 60 years of age. Listeriosis is a global problem.

Studies have shown that the ready-to-eat foods - such as hot dogs and other deli meats - pose the biggest risk. As The Safe Food Handbook advises, you need to heat them to 165 degrees F. Essentially, that means "steaming hot." Be especially careful when using a barbecue as it is easy to undercook meat. And make sure that juice from the package doesn't get onto any other food that you'll eat raw. If you take those precautions you don't have to worry about the bacterial risk - just those other ones like the additives and fat!

To your good health,

Thursday, June 16, 2011


In the previous post, I talked about the two most recent cheese recalls in the U.S. One of them was for Royal Blue Stilton Cheese, imported from England. And I also mentioned another U.S. importer's recall for the same Stilton cheese which I had blogged in May. Of course, these are not the only recalls of Stilton cheese to occur in the U.S. (for instance, Kroger's had a couple of Stilton recalls in December, 2008 and there have been others).

But Stilton recalls are not only hitting the U.S. They are also occurring in Canada - for the same bacteria - Listeria monocytogenes. Like the U.S. cheeses, they were also imported from England. A globalized food supply also means we suffer the same food safety risks.

In early May, about the time of the earlier U.S. Stilton recall for Royal Blue Stilton, there was a recall by a Canadian importer called Tree of Life based in Surrey, BC. The cheese was "King James" brand Blue Stilton Cheese (yet another royal sounding name). The recall was expanded in early June to include additional sizes and lot codes of the affected cheese. The cheese was sold in B.C., Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland, but authorities suspect that it may actually have been distributed nationally. In fact, it could also have been sold at deli counters much earlier - between April 14 and May 19. I am trying to find out if it came from the same British dairy.

The British are very proud of their Stilton cheese and they have been producing it at least since the 18th Century. In fact, Stilton is sometimes called "The King of Cheeses." If you want to know how it is made, go to According to this website (I have edited a bit), to be called Stilton, a cheese must be:

• made in one of three counties - Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Nottinghamshire, in England
• produced in one of the only six dairies specially licensed to make Stilton
• made from local pasteurized milk
• a traditional cylindrical shape.
• allowed to form its own crust or coat.
• be un-pressed.
• delicate blue veins radiating from the center.
• have a taste typical of Stilton.

What is happening to this "King of Cheeses?" And where will the next recall crop up? Are they also being exported to the EU countries? After that nasty E.coli outbreak linked to sprouts, all they need is contaminated cheese!

To your good health,



For a while we were getting regular cheese recalls in the U.S. because of bacterial contamination - usually Listeria monocytogenes, but sometimes also a Staph, E.coli or Salmonella bacteria. In fact, I called cheese the most dangerous food of 2010 (see Post for 12/22/10 -"Is Cheese our Most Dangerous Food?").

But recently the food safety spotlight has focused more on other foods. Now it seems to be turning back to cheese, with two relatively small but interesting recalls. The New York State Agriculture Commissioner has warned people not to eat certain kinds of fresh cheese - "Queso Fresco" made by Quesos CentroAmericano Corp. of Freeport, New York. This type of cheese is particularly popular with the Latin population of the U.S. The reason for the recall: possible Staphylococcus aureus contamination.

This bacteria can give you a really bad case of food poisoning if you happen to be vulnerable (beware - young children, older consumers and those who have serious health conditions). Anyone who is serious about avoiding food poisoning should best avoid unpasteurized fresh cheeses. Symptoms of Staph food poisoning: nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping and weakness. In more severe cases, there can also be headache, muscle cramping and changes in blood pressure and pulse rate. Thankfully, Staph food poisoning usually only lasts about 2 days.

Then there was another, small U.S. recall of cheese imported from England -one of my husband's favorites - “Royal Blue Stilton. ” The cheese is being recalled by Atlanta Corporation, a food importer and distributor based in Elizabeth, New Jersey. This food distributor decided to test this cheese for Listeria monocytogenes, after another cheese importer, Schratter Foods Incorporated, a Fairfield of New York, recalled cheeses that were made by the same English dairy (Quenby Hall Dairy - see Alert for May 17 and the post on June 11). Sure enough, theirs also tested positive for Listeria.

Luckily only one big wheel of this cheese had reached the marketplace, chopped up in chunks of course. But what took them so long? The other recall took place almost a month before they announced theirs, and it doesn't take so long to test for Listeria (I have done it).

Watch out for this Stilton cheese in the store or in your refrigerator. They will be labeled “Product of England” “Keep Refrigerated” “Royal Blue Stilton” “English Semi-Hard Cheese". You'll also see a small circular English flag in the upper left, and the logo of the exporter “Coombe Castle International” in the upper center. The rest of the suspect cheese is being quarantined and destroyed by this importer.

To your good health.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


The European outbreak caused by the new and super-toxic mutation of E.coli 0104 bacteria in food is finally winding down. As of now, the official number of illnesses stands at about 3,200 and the number of deaths at 37, including one child. But as I have been saying all along, these official numbers are always an underestimation. The German officials now acknowledge that it takes at least a week for statistics to travel from a hospital to the state authorities to the Robert Koch Institute, which is the federal authority for updating the numbers. (Are they really using snail mail in this situation?). Besides, many people still remain hospitalized with HUS, which has a high fatality rate.

And the blame-game is now winding down too. As you will recall, originally Spanish cucumbers were suspected, with other fresh vegetables such as lettuce and tomatoes also placed on the "avoid" list in many countries. Then bean sprouts turned out to be the culprit. But "blame the vegetables" game is far from over. I have yet to see any news report which does not call sprouts a "vegetable" or at least imply that they are.

Don't they know sprouts are a legume? Yes, they are a plant too, but legumes are in a different plant family. Sprouts are related to beans, lentils, peanuts and soy - not to our veggies.

So, stop blaming them! And let's get back to eating them.

To your good health,



The giant food manufacturer, Kellogg, has been put on notice by the FDA for bacterial contamination at its Atlanta, Georgia plant, and told to quickly clean up its act (see previous blog). And, some 21 months ago, the same bacteria - Listeria monocytogenes - was found in its Augusta, Georgia plant. I notice from the incoming searches on this blog that people are wondering whether Kellogg's cereals are safe to eat. Mothers of young children are particularly concerned - and sensibly so.

As far as I know, these two bad cases of food plant contamination took place at company plants which did not manufacture cereal. The 2009-2010 incident was at a plant that made Eggo waffles and some other frozen foods. The current one is at a plant that makes Famous Amos and Keebler cookies. Cereal manufacture involves a different process and different types of equipment and plant conditions. This is such a big company, it has multiple plants.

Yes, there was a huge recall of Kellogg's cereals just about a year ago, when consumers noticed an odd smell and taste in several of the cereals. In all, some 28 million boxes of Apple Jacks, Corn Pops, Froot Loops and Honey Smacks cereal were recalled worldwide. The cause was chemical - not bacterial. (You can't smell or taste bacteria.) In this case, the wax paper liners used in cereal packaging were releasing hydrocarbons, including methyl naphthalene. We don't know much about how this chemical affects health, and reportedly the levels were pretty low. Kellogg made sure that the problem will not occur again by recalling all the affected products and destroying the remaining toxic packaging materials. The FDA was satisfied with actions taken.

As for bacteria turning up in a cereal plant - yes, in theory it can happen. If it did occur, my money would be on Salmonella (which does well in dry conditions) rather than Listeria monocytogenes (which turned up in the two incidents mentioned). Personally, I would be more concerned about mold toxin contamination in cereal than bacteria. (I must remember to blog this).

As far as I know, there have been no reports of bacterial contamination of Kellogg cereal at least in recent years. So, you can assume that it is "safe to eat" from that viewpoint. But in food safety, the unexpected occurs, so I make no promises for the future.

To your good health,

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


The FDA has sent a warning letter to Kellogg, giving it just 15 days to come up with a fool-proof plan to clean up its factory in Augusta, Georgia. The problem - Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. The plant produces cookies - those delicious Keebler and Famous Amos ones. This bacterium was found in several spots along the production line, all of which come into direct contact with the cookies. The problem actually turned up earlier this year, and Kellogg promised to clean up the plant. It took a number of actions, but it still didn't pass the FDA's follow-up inspection.

This isn't the first time Kellogg is in trouble over Listeria, or has received a warning letter from the FDA. In September, 2009, the bacteria were found in Kellogg's Buttermilk Eggo Waffles manufactured at an Atlanta plant, which also produced frozen food products. This was also a case where Kellogg apparently made a huge effort to investigate the issue and clean up and sanitize the plant, but still failed the FDA follow-up inspection.

As other companies have found out, once bacteria are fairly wide-spread in a food manufacturing plant, it is often very difficult to get rid of - whether it be Salmonella or Listeria monocytogenes. Plant workers can also be carriers without even knowing it. Listeria may be particularly tricky as it can survive and even multiply in the refrigerator. Did they look in there?

This is also an odd bacterium which may barely affect some people, but can be life-threatening to others. Pregnant women have to be especially careful, because they are much more likely to catch it, and it can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth or premature delivery or illness of the newborn.

Symptoms to look out for: may include diarrhea and other gastrointestinal symptoms, fever, muscle aches, stiff neck, confusion and sometimes diarrhea and other gastrointestinal symptoms. A bit like the flu. See my earlier blogs for more on Listeria monocytogenes.

To your good health.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


Only a small percentage of U.S. consumers (about 8 percent) eat sprouts of any kind. Alfalfa is the most popular. But those who do, tend to eat them raw on sandwiches salads or in wraps. They view sprouted seeds as great for their health. Unfortunately, as we have found out from the ongoing European E.coli outbreak linked to sprouts, they can be the opposite.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has for years warned Americans to be careful about sprouts.

Their advice:

To reduce the risk of illness, do not eat raw sprouts such as bean, alfalfa, clover, or radish sprouts. All sprouts should be cooked thoroughly before eating to reduce the risk of illness. This advice is particularly important for children, the elderly, and persons with weakened immune systems, all of whom are at risk of developing serious illness due to food-borne disease.

Clearly this advice is not being followed. We are still eating raw sprouts - including those people at high risk. I noticed when looking at the illness statistics on the large 2009 outbreak associated with alfalfa sprouts, that the age of the victims ranged from less than 12 months to 85 years.

To your good health!



Sprouts (sprouted seeds) have now caused the two largest known outbreaks of E.coli food borne illness. You could say that they are the deadliest food in the world. And, unfortunately, a little goes a long way in terms of making you ill.

In the summer of 1996, in Sakai, Japan, an estimated 12,680 were sickened and at least 11 people died from eating radish sprouts. Many where school-age children.

In the early summer of 2011, in northern Germany, at least 3100 people have been sickened and so far 31 have died, from eating bean sprouts. Hundreds remain critically ill, as the outbreak winds down. Although sprouts were the second suspect, and then dismissed, the authorities have now concluded that the outbreak did after all originate in organic sprouts grown on a farm in the northern German village of Bienenbuettel.

Just a few days ago, the Dutch recalled exported beet sprouts from three countries, because E.coli was found, but not by the vicious Hamburg strain. It was another pathogenic E.coli bacterium.

There have also been numerous sprout-linked outbreaks in the United States and Canada over the years, many of them in alfalfa sprouts which are the most popular in the U.S. Sprouts are commonly contaminated with not just various E.coli, but also Salmonella and even Listeria (see earlier post). The government-recommended treatment of seeds (not obligatory), is not used by all growers, and even when used, does not always work. Organically grown sprouts appear to be no safer than conventionally grown ones.

At the beginning of this year, sprouts headed my list of 5 foods I would not eat in 2011 (see post of January 3). They are still there.

To your good health!


Friday, June 10, 2011


Tomorrow, June 11, will be the 3 month anniversary of the disastrous tsunami and nuclear catastrophe in Japan. I was heavily blogging the implications for food safety before this huge European E.coli bacteria outbreak diverted my attention. Now I am back.

The contamination of the environment and of food seems to be much less in the news now than it was during the first two months. In fact, very little information on levels of radionuclides in Japan's food seems to be released, even though testing is apparently ongoing. But that does not mean that radioactive material from the damaged Fukushima nuclear facility is no longer drifting over populated areas and agricultural land where crops grow and animals graze. It is. Nor does it mean that people, especially in Japan, are not concerned about how this affects the safety of their food. I can tell they are from the searches that reach my blog.

So, in answer to some of the questions people have, I tried to find out where the radioactive material is going. After much searching, I finally found information on the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety
Agency's (ARPANSA) official site. They have modeled its path according to wind conditions. From yesterday, June 9 the radioactive materials was supposed to mainly be over Northern Japan. However, starting from Saturday mid-morning, changing wind conditions would push the plume to the south of the reactor site. There may be some landfall over Southern Japan. While no landfall is expected in Tokyo on Thursday, ARPANSA says it may occur Saturday and Sunday. Over the next 12 days or so, the radiation plume is expected to move over Korea, China, Russia and USA.

The ARPANSA website provides more detailed information. But you get the picture. The radioactive material is still drifting around. Soil, grass and agricultural crops in the path of the radiation plume are progressively becoming more and more contaminated as they accumulate unhealthy substances such as nuclear Caesium and Iodine (see earlier blogs for more information on these). Several countries which import Japanese food products such as seaweed, seafood, milk and fruits and vegetables are cautious about foods grown in Japanese prefectures of Kanagawa, Nagano, Niigata, Saitama, Tokyo, Yamagata, Miyagi and Shizuoka.

To your good health!


Wednesday, June 8, 2011


The second-largest outbreak due to E.coli bacteria in the world is still ongoing. The number of victims now stands at about 2,400 confirmed illnesses in 14 countries, over 600 of worst cases hospitalized with life-threatening hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), and at least 24 deaths. Multiply the number of illnesses by about 10 and you'll probably be closer to the real numbers (not everyone will become ill enough to see a doctor). The culprit food (and we are still assuming it was food) has not yet been identified.

In Canada, only one case (in Ontario) is recorded at present. In the U.S., at least 4 cases are believed to be part of this outbreak. The CDC says the one in Massachusetts has been confirmed, and two suspected cases are in hospital with HUS in Wisconsin and Michigan one each). The fourth case is not as bad. All five people ill in North America had recently been in Hamburg, Germany - the center of the outbreak, and eaten there.

However, at the moment there is no cause for alarm. The United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and health officials in all the states are taking special action to quickly catch any cases and to prevent spread to others. (This bacterium can spread person-to-person as well as animal-to-human and through contaminated food or water). Suspect foods imported from affected European countries is undergoing special testing. Canada is also taking extra precautions. That is about all that government can do at present.

However, realistically, there will probably be more cases. If you have travelled to Europe recently, watch out for symptoms of diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea and sometimes, vomiting. But remember that many other bacteria, viruses and parasites can cause the same symptoms (not to mention irritable bowel and all those other things!). When you see your doctor, don't forget to mention your trip.

To your good health!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


The super-toxic E.coli bacteria outbreak, centered in Germany, is ongoing and remains unresolved. The culprit is believed to have originated in something the victims ate in Northern Germany. Vegetables - especially cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce - or bean sprouts, are still the main suspect foods.

As a result, some countries have banned import of either EU vegetables generally, or put a ban on vegetables from Germany or Spain, or on certain specific vegetables (the ones suspected). Russia has taken the most drastic measures, banning import of all raw vegetables from the 27 EU nations. This is bad news for the EU since Russia accounts for about 594 million euros ($853 million) worth of EU vegetable imports a year (2010 data).

The EU delegation sent to Russia yesterday had no luck. The Russian Health Minister remained unconvinced. He said: "The meetings were positive and useful information was exchanged, but until we know where the disease is coming from and how to control it ... the ban will remain in effect.'

But are EU vegetables really dangerous? Personally, I doubt they are any more so than similar vegetables grown and processed in Russia, the United States, United Kingdom, or Canada. EU standards for food safety are very high and well enforced, particularly in some EU member countries. But problems occasionally occur in spite of all the efforts - as they do everywhere else too. If vegetables are eaten raw, the consumer is at higher risk.

Besides, we don't even know yet whether the current E.coli outbreak was indeed caused by European-grown vegetables, or by any vegetables for that matter. It could have been sprouts (a legume - which now seems more likely). Or, it could have been meat, or some other food - or, drinking water. We may never know.

Yes, although I prefer locally grown produce, if I was offered European vegetables, I would eat them. I trust EU standards. And, at the moment we have no proof that EU produce is unsafe.

To your good health,


Monday, June 6, 2011


So the culprit vegetable for the huge toxic E.coli outbreak was declared to be (Spanish, imported) cucumbers. And then it wasn't cucumbers. Next it was (German-Saxony, organic) bean sprouts. And now doubt is being cast too on this being the criminal food. Talk of a mess! And talk of an embarrassing situation for German officials. And, a very frustrating situation for all the people living or visiting Northern Germany who are trying to not starve to death or ruin their health, but not knowing what to eat.

But I am a little sympathetic, because of the pressures and challenges involved in solving this mystery. If you have "been in the business" - as I have (among other things, having done bacteriology in public health laboratories), you tend to be more aware of the barriers and pitfalls. For one thing, particularly in the case of food, sufficient numbers of bacteria rarely turn up in every single sample. So you may get some negatives as well as positives. In this case, the news reports 23 out of 40 samples from the farm had turned out negative so far. There are still 17 to go. Let's see...

But there is also the chance - although less likely - that the bacteria entered at a later point. There are still other possibilities as well. I don't have the details on when the sprout samples were taken, but conceivably, it might be possible that the contamination was temporary, in that it only affected sprout crops at a certain period of time (around end of April to early May). This could have been a rainy period, with more runoff from fields where cattle were grazing. Or, perhaps wild animals (which can also carry such bacteria) were running around then, and are now gone. Sprouts do spoil rather quickly, so there may have been none of the original samples left on which to do tests.

Investigating the cause of a food outbreak is always a challenge, particularly with perishable produce or perishable legumes, unless you just happen to get lucky (for instance, finding the contaminated food sitting in the refrigerator of someone who has become ill). But, admittedly, this is one for the history books.

To your good health,


Sunday, June 5, 2011


On January 4 of this year, I posted "Five Foods I Won't Eat in 2011." Sprouts was one of them. In fact, it was first on the list. I guess if all those unfortunate people who are very ill with the German E.coli had read this post, they would be much happier today. I wish they had. This outbreak is no joke. Nor is this new super-toxic strain of E.coli bacteria.

The Safe Food Handbook has identified sprouts as one of the riskiest foods to eat. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not like sprouted seeds either. In fact, it warns people who are elderly or with a weakened immune system, not to eat them. There have been certain periods of time, such as April, 2009, when the FDA has warned everyone - even healthy people - not to eat sprouts. That is what the German government is doing now. For thousands of people, it's too late.

The usual contaminant of sprouts in the United States is Salmonella bacteria, although E.coli 0157:H7 has also been involved in contaminated alfalfa sprouts in the U.S. , as has the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes. In the German outbreak, it is E.coli. Both in the case of the Salmonella and the E.coli bacteria, the original source is likely to be animal manure. In the case of Listeria contamination, the point of entry could be during processing.

Will washing sprouts help? Not always, because the contaminant can be right inside the seed itself.

Will cooking help? (Not that most of us like well-cooked sprouts) Sometimes. In the case of some E.coli bacteria, the enterotoxins they produce are heat-labile (meaning they are destroyed at high temperatures). But other E.coli enterotoxins can survive. That means that even cooking won't always solve the problem. And it is the toxins that really attack your body and continue to do so, even when the bacteria themselves have left the scene.

You may think twice about eating those sprouted seeds in the future.

To your good health!


It looks like imported food was not to blame after all. Bean sprouts are now suspected of causing this deadliest outbreak of food borne illness known. It has sickened over 2,000 people and caused at least 22 deaths. And, these sprouts originated right in northern Germany, where the outbreak centered.

The sprouts were in fact grown on a farm in lower Saxony. The ministry spokesman Gert Hahne told The Associated Press: "Bean sprouts have been identified as the product that likely caused the outbreak," Hahne added: "Many restaurants that suffered from an E.coli outbreak had those sprouts delivered."

Today, the Lower Saxony agriculture ministry sent out an alert, advising people not to eat the sprouts - on salads, in sandwiches, or in any form.

What we still don't know is exactly where and how the deadly E.coli entered the sprouts. The farm level is the obvious place to suspect, and most likely, the water used for irrigation, from improperly composted manure used as fertilizer or from grazing animals. Contaminants can also be in sprout seeds before they are even sent to the grower. Or, though less likely, contaminants can enter during processing.

Can you make sprouts safe? I'll deal with this in the next blog. In the meantime, if you have a copy, read about it in the book.

To your good health!



I have just returned from being interviewed on KRON 4 Television in San Francisco (my second time there this year). The topic was the European E.coli outbreak. Since this is an emerging situation, I made sure that I caught up with the latest news before I left the house for the studio. But wouldn't it. About 5 minutes before the interview aired the news came out. It is now suspected that the outbreak was caused by bean sprouts, served in Hamburg area restaurants. It wasn't the cucumbers, tomatoes or lettuce after all. It was a legume. At least I had blogged the possibility last night - and identified one of the restaurants (see previous blog). It helps to be a step ahead of the "breaking news."

Besides, I can't say I am surprised. What was that famous line is the movie Casablanca after Major Strasser has been shot? "Round up the usual suspects." We tend to go for the obvious first. In this case of deadly food borne illness, the usual suspects were cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes. Most people eat them. So, if people who are ill are asked what they ate in the last few days, they are likely to mention these. Who is likely to say" "Oh, and there were these tiny sprouts in the salad..." That's why it took a while - far too long - to come up with the culprit food.

This is not the first time that a misidentification has happened in the investigation of a food-linked outbreak. Remember the case in the large Salmonella outbreak in the U.S. in 2008 when those poor tomatoes were blamed for everything, and it really turned out to be Jalapeno and Serrano peppers - and only "maybe" tomatoes as well? This isn't the only instance of the wrong food being identified.

To your good health!

Saturday, June 4, 2011


There is now some speculation that the huge outbreak of super-toxic E.coli in Europe may not have originated at the farm level after all. And, it may not be linked to imported produce - such as cucumbers. In fact, the outbreak could have been "home-grown" in Northern Germany itself, maybe originating at the Hamburg Port Festival. The beautiful festival took place at the beginning of May. That timing sounds just about right. It was attended by about 1.5 million people - both tourists and locals.

The possibility is being investigated. Certainly at least some of the victims attended the event. And reportedly several of them ate at a popular local restaurant called the Kartoffel-Keller - "The Potato Cellar" in English. It is a charming Hamburg restaurant with outdoor tables and vines - straight out of a tourist brochure. The photo is of one of their potato pies. The owner is clearly upset, to put it mildly.

I assume that we'll find out in the next few days whether all of the victims ate there (except for those who caught it second-hand from other people). They are no doubt being questioned right now. But it's possible. And it may not have been the restaurant's fault. If you look at my post of earlier today on E.coli 0157:H7 recalls of the past few months in the U.S., you will see that at least two of the contaminated meat recalls were of ground meat distributed to restaurants only. That is, the distributor sent the restaurant contaminated food. As I say in The Safe Food Handbook, restaurant food tends to be less safe.

Was the source even salad? Or was it potatoes? Or meat? Or, sprouts?

To your good health!


The Safe Food Handbook calls salads one of the riskiest types of food we can eat. In fact, it could well be that more food borne illnesses originate in salads each year than in any other type of food. Why?

The main reason is that we eat them raw. Meat may carry more bacteria, but we can do something about it: we can cook it. But we do nothing about our salads, except wash each item, peel where we can, and hope for the best. Some of the time it works. But sometimes it doesn't. The reason is that the microbes have got under the skin, right into the flesh - the parts we eat. And, salads are so easy to contaminate in the kitchen, from unclean surfaces or contact with other raw foods that carry bacteria. Salads in a restaurant are particularly risky.

As reported by CNN World, Dr Nicola Holden, from Scotland's James Hutton Institute, noted that food poisoning cases linked to vegetables appeared to be on the increase. "We have seen a rise in the number of outbreaks associated instead with fresh fruit and vegetables; in particular foods that are eaten raw or lightly cooked, like salad vegetables, fresh fruit and sprouted beans," she said.

What is happening in Europe right now with the current outbreak could underline this point. That is, if it really turns out to be one of the salad items that is responsible. It is not proven yet.

To your good health!



There is still no solution to the mysterious E.coli bacteria outbreak in Europe. We don't know what the source was, but the main suspects are still cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes.

People are getting nervous and forgoing their salad. First in Spain, now in other European countries as well, farmers are having to throw out their vegetable crops, or feed them to the goats and pigs. The market vendors are suffering too. The German government has advised people not to eat raw vegetables. That means no cucumber salad, no tomatoes on your sandwich, and no salads.

In Hamburg, the center of this deadly outbreak, the main market has few customers and sales have fallen. Even the U.S. military bases in Germany are pulling tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers from the menus, salad bars and commissary shelves. And American Airlines has taken green salads off its menus on flights out of Europe.

But it's not just in Germany. People in other European countries are also being more cautious about fresh vegetables and especially the three main suspects. Even in Britain, farmers are having to discard tons of salad crops because of poor demand - not just of cucumbers, but also of lettuce, tomatoes - and even peppers. As of today, there have been at least 11 confirmed cases of this illness in the UK - four among visiting Germans, and the rest among Brits who recently visited Northern Germany, or, had close contact with someone from there.

Russia has gone so far as to ban import of all vegetables from Europe, which will also hit European farmers hard since it is a major market for their produce.

With all these bailouts and other problems, that's all the EU needed.
To your good health!



Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, has said that the actual number of infections resulting from the very toxic E.coli outbreak centered in Germany, could be 10 or more times higher than those officially announced.

So let's say the official numbers are 2,000 illnesses from this very unusual bacteria (that's probably close to what they will be tomorrow). That would mean that it's really closer to 20,000. Is this possible?

Yes, not only possible, but probable. That is what I have been suggesting in previous posts, so I am glad someone agrees. In all outbreaks there are large numbers of affected people who are not included in the reporting system: because they don't go to the doctor, because laboratory tests are not performed, because the tests don't turn up the bacteria (numbers present in the stool will decrease after the first few days), because the cause is not correctly identified, because the doctor or hospital doesn't have time to send in a report.

In addition, there are reporting delays: not just a few days, but sometimes weeks, while the information works its way through the system. This means that the reported statistics are always behind the real ones. And, much lower than the real ones.

Based on a review of the U.S. experience, The Safe Food Handbook suggests that probably as few as 3% of actual cases of food borne illness actually enter the official reporting system. I would guess that it is better in Europe, where the regulatory agencies are not as underfinanced and overworked as they are here. But it is still only a fraction.

To your good health!



The deadly wave of potentially lethal E.coli illness sweeping across Europe has everyone scared. That includes people in the U.S. Is there E.coli bacteria in our food as well?

The answer is "yes." But before you panic, so far that particular "Hamburg" strain of E.coli bacterium (a version of E.coli 0104) has not been isolated here (with the exception of a small outbreak in Montana, in 1994), maybe because we don't normally test for it (see previous post).

But we do have plenty of other toxic E.coli turning up, especially E.coli 0157:H7. Usually it is found in our meat, especially ground beef, but turns up in other foods as well. This is a relative of the E.coli bacterium in Europe. It can also cause bloody diarrhea, and result in HUS complications, but has a different genetic makeup, and is not quite as deadly. Also, unlike the European strain, the most serious illnesses usually occur in children - not adults.

Let's take a look at outbreaks of this E.coli in our food during the past six months (December, 2010-May 31, 2011). On May 31 (just a few days ago), a Michigan firm recalled close to a thousand pounds of ground beef products it had sent out to restaurants because E.coli 0157:H7 was found in it. Six days earlier, a major retailer in Georgia had to recall hundreds of pounds of ground beef for the same reason. In early March, a retailer in Kansas, had to recall seven tons of beef products (that is a lot of meat) again because of E.coli 0157:H7. And there was still another recall of ground beef a month before that, in which case the products were again sent to restaurants throughout California. And, another couple of recalls in December, originating with in firms in Texas and in California.

The average - one sizeable recall a month over the last six months - that we know of. Not all instances are caught. And not all that are caught are reported. And, I may have missed one or two on this list.

Nor is E.coli 0157:H7 contamination in the U.S. limited to meat. In the past six months, we also had this bacterium turn up in hazelnuts imported from Canada, of all things (very unusual - see post of March 7). Then there was also that large and embarrassing recall of Sally Jackson (Wisconsin) cheese last December. Whole Foods Market had to do a recall of its own, because it was selling them to its health-conscious customers. Meanwhile, during December and January there was still an ongoing recall of bagged salads contaminated with E.coli 0157:H7 (distributed by Fresh Express, of Salinas California) and of another cheese although they had started earlier.

So we have enough on our hands with toxic E.coli 0157:H7 in our food. Let's hope it doesn't decide to mutate and pick up some nasty features of another more deadly bacterium, as did the E.coli 0104 in Europe.

To your good health!


Friday, June 3, 2011


The outbreak of toxic E.coli continues to create illnesses and panic in Europe. The latest genetic testing by a collaborating Chinese laboratory shows it to be a new strain - or, at least, a previously unidentified strain of E.coli. Yes, it is related to E.coli 0104 (about 80%) but the other 20% of the genetic composition comes from another very toxic bacterium. The closest thing we know to it is apparently a strain known as EAEC 55989 that causes very serious illness in the Central African Republic.

The experts are saying this strain of E.coli has never caused any illness in the United States. I think that conclusion is premature. How can we know we haven't had such incidents if laboratories do not test for them? Most laboratories only do serological typing for the more common E.coli 0157:H7, which crops up with some regularity in the North American food supply, with no testing for the other 2000 or so E.coli strains.
Remember the case of E.coli 0145 in a bag of Dole Baby Spinach in 2006 (and in Safeway lettuce in 2010)? The New York laboratory that found it was one of the few in the U.S. which tested for this strain. If the sample had been sent to another U.S. laboratory, the chances are that it would not have been identified. And if you were ill with E.coli 0104 and the sample was sent to a U.S. laboratory, the chances are that it would not have been identified either.

Let's not say the bacterium has never occurred in the U.S. Let's just say it hasn't been identified. It could have turned up, but simply been relegated to the cold case files of food borne illness.

To your good health.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


The E.coli outbreak that originated in Germany, and is spreading across Europe and beyond, is much worse than anyone initially expected. In fact, it is worse than any recent outbreak of food borne illness anywhere in the world. I am calling it "food borne" because that is how it has been classified from the beginning. But I am still keeping an open mind until there is conclusive proof. And there isn't yet.

True, food is indeed the source of illness from enterohemorrhagic E.coli like this one. But it is not the only possibility. You can also get it from contact with sick people, from animals (who may carry disease-causing bacteria but not show any symptoms), from a swimming pool, from oral contact with a contaminated spoon or fork (or, anything else), or from drinking water.

Even if it is food - and, it probably is, given the large number of people becoming ill, we may never find out which food item is involved. It wouldn't be the first time that an investigation of food borne illness came up blank. Not all crimes are solved either. And, as in the case of this outbreak, under pressure to come up with a solution, the wrong culprit is sometimes initially identified. Even if traceback efforts and laboratory testing never find the source, the outbreak usually just fizzles out. But, of course, it would end faster if we knew where it started.

Research institutes all over the world are becoming involved in trying to solve the mystery. Let's hope they succeed before it spreads any further.

To your good health!



There is nothing new to report on the ongoing outbreak of the deadly E.coli bacteria in Europe. Some experts believe that the number of new illnesses and life-threatening HUS complications (in about 30% of cases) might be slowing down a bit, but opinions seem to differ. So do the statistics. We still don't know the source of the outbreak (now that cucumbers are no longer the definite suspect), but the focus remains on vegetables.

And now everyone is talking about how rare and infectious and deadly this particular strain of E.coli is.

What no one seems to be mentioning is the risk of catching it, not from food, but from someone who is ill. I am talking about person-to-person transmission, or "secondary" illnesses. They can be just as bad. A study published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in March, 2011, on an outbreak of the better-known and more common E.coli 0157:H7 in Scotland, found that about 11% of cases were secondary. Another study of a 2006 U.S. outbreak of the bacteria associated with spinach estimated that 12% were secondary. So, conservatively, let's say at least around 10% of cases of these deadly illnesses are likely to occur as a result of contact with someone who is ill - usually a relative or close friend. Since this particular E.coli bacterium is especially virulent, the rate of secondary infections could well be much higher. Well, what are we doing to prevent these cases? And, is the public being warned to be careful?

Of course, the basics of preventing person-to-person transmission of this bacteria, as with any other, are pretty simple. The usual route for infection is fecal-oral. Most of it boils down to using good personal hygiene. But remember too that care should be applied to touching the clothing or bedding of someone who is ill, and in cleaning the bathroom they have used. Disposable rubber gloves, which are available in most urban areas, can be very useful.

What most people don't know is that someone can have an infection and not show symptoms, and, that someone who is ill can be contagious for a few days after all symptoms have disappeared. In some cases, much longer.

Be careful.

To your good health!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


The current outbreak of - presumably - food borne illness, is continuing in Europe. It has been declared to be the worst such outbreak in modern times. This is not only because of the numbers of people who are becoming ill, and the multi-country scope, but because of the severity of the illness. It is caused by a particularly deadly and rare strain of E.coli bacteria. While some E.coli live normally in our digestive system and serve a useful function in processing food, others are pathogenic and can cause very serious illness, including hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). This is one of the latter group. In fact, it may be the worst E.coli bacterium known because of the very high percentage of victims who develop HUS complications.

Since the outbreak is still ongoing, statistics are changing on a daily basis. Remember too that some people may be asymptomatic, and others have such mild cases that they don't see a doctor, and therefore do not get added to the list. As mentioned in earlier posts (see May 31), the real numbers in any foodborne illness are usually many times higher than the reported ones. By the time I post this, the below numbers will have increased again. But they give you some idea of where we are.

In Germany: 1,534 people in the country have been confirmed as infected. The Robert Koch Institute in Germany has reported that out of these fully 470 are suffering from HUS (about 30%, which is in the range of my earlier guesstimate - see post of May 31 - of a quarter to a third). Seventeen deaths have been reported so far.

In other countries: The World Health Organization said cases have been reported in nine European countries: Austria, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the U.K. But other reports also note two cases in the United States, and one in the Czech Republic (an American travelling from Germany, who is hospitalized in Prague). All but a few illness in other countries are among people who have recently travelled to Northern Germany, or among German residents who are have become ill while travelling abroad (There is a time-delay between getting infected and developing symptoms). The few instances that do not fit this patterns could be secondary infections caught from friends or relatives who are ill.

As of time of writing, the source of the outbreak is still unknown. Although cucumbers from Spain have now been dismissed as the cause, people in many countries are still being advised not to eat them. They are being fed to goats instead!
It seems that the focus of the investigation is still on vegetables which are eaten raw. But could it be something else?

To your good health!



So we are back to the beginning. The Hamburg Institute for Hygiene and the Environment now says that it may not be Spanish cucumbers after all that are causing the deadly E.coli bacteria outbreak in Europe. Here we go again - another botched up case of investigating a food borne illness. It happens, particularly when researchers and authorities are under pressure. As we said in earlier blogs, it wasn't a conclusive link yet.

Apparently the testing found that the E.coli bacteria isolated from the stools of sick people don't quite match the bacteria in those suspect Spanish cucumbers.

That leaves us with several questions which have not been answered.

First, are they sure that food is really the cause of the outbreak? Conceivably, it could be contaminated water, or beer or coke or ice or something else. Did interviews with victims ask what they drank recently?

Secondly, if it is food, what is it? Yes, we seem to be back to the beginning on that one as well. Some of the alternatives that have been tossed out over the past week or so are tomatoes, lettuce and eggplant. Who knows, maybe it isn't even one of these. Maybe it's cabbage.

Thirdly, what are those E.coli 0104 bacteria doing in those Spanish cucumbers? Or, was that laboratory finding a mistake too, and they weren't really there?

The mystery deepens. And unfortunately, this one had better be solved quickly. Illnesses and deaths are increasing. And so are political tensions.

To your good health!