IFT Science Addresses E. coli O157:H7 Outbreak

CHICAGO-Since June, nearly 60 people have fallen ill from ground beef and romaine lettuce contaminated by E. coli O157:H7-a legitimate health concern since this strain of bacteria accounts for 62,000 illnesses and 52 deaths a year. Surprising facts about E. coli, characteristics of this and other deadly pathogens and methods to control them are all in the latest Expert Report Emerging Microbiological Food Safety Issues, published this year by the not-for-profit Institute of Food Technologists.

"Half of all cattle in the country can carry E. coli O157:H7 at some time in their lives," said IFT president Philip Nelson, Ph.D. "It is in their digestive tract, it's in their feces, and it's in their manure" that is used as crop fertilizer where it can flow with water runoff and into reservoirs. The pathogen can get also into food during slaughter via fecal contamination, according to the report.

The IFT Expert Report addresses the many alternatives that exist and are utilized to process foods for improved safety, and reviews how transportation, storage, and retail and food service affect food safety.

"IFT has long recognized that good manufacturing and hygienic practices, safe food handling techniques and sound scientific processes like irradiation are the best defense against foodborne dangers like E. coli," said Nelson, "But no single measure can provide iron clad assurances against these pathogens." The report notes that varieties of these pathogens are believed to have existed for millions of years while also evolving daily.

According to the report, irradiation can reduce-but not necessarily eliminate-harmful microorganisms that survive processing practices.

"Irradiation adequately controls E. coli O157:H7 in meat and destroys more than 99.9 percent of Salmonella," said Mark McLellan, Ph.D., director of the Institute of Food Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University and president-elect of IFT, "But hepatitis A and other viruses are resistant to irradiation."

IFT provides extensive background on irradiation in this expert report and in its 1998 Scientific Status Summary on Irradiation of Food, online at www.ift.org/publications/sss/irradiation.pdf.

Annually, there are 76 million cases of foodborne illness in the country, attributing for 5,000 deaths. Only 18 percent of these illnesses are attributed to known causes, according to information within the IFT Expert Report, available online at www.ift.org/govtrelations/microfs/.

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