Ohio State U. Scientists Work to Figure Out E. coli Dilemma

(U-WIRE) COLUMBUS, Ohio — With E. coli outbreaks linked to bagged spinach popping up across the country, Ohio State University scientists are working to figure out what went wrong.

“People are starting to look harder at fruits and vegetables as a source of contamination,” said Jeff LeJeune, an assistant professor with the Food Animal Health Research Program.

The number of people affected by E. coli in recent months has risen to more than 170 nationwide. E. coli is a harmful strain of the bacteria Escherichia coli, which can sometimes lead to kidney failure and fatality.

LeJeune, along with what he calls “a multi-disciplinary team” of experts, has been conducting research to determine exactly how E. coli contaminates produce and what allows the pathogen to survive.
“There’s no reason why E. coli should be on a plant,” said Ken Lee, a professor of food science and technology who has been working closely with LeJeune.

“It shouldn’t survive at all,” he said, citing sunlight and other factors as natural preventatives.

Lee said there are many steps the leafy greens must go through before reaching the grocery store shelves, any of which could result in contamination.

“The spinach, after it is harvested, is washed,” Lee said. “It can’t make it out of the field without being washed with chlorinated water … then there’s the bagging and shipping … then there’s the handling in the home.”

Since the first case of the illness linked to eating spinach on Aug. 19, people in 25 states have reported some type of affliction from E. coli.

LeJeune said it only takes about 1,000 organisms of the E. coli bacteria to infect a person, whereas it could take up to 1 million salmonella organisms to have the same effect.

“Was it heavily contaminated and washing it got rid of 99 percent of it? That one percent might be bad for us,” LeJeune said.

The recent outbreak of the dangerous pathogen has been linked to the spinach grown in Salinas Valley, Calif., and does not surprise LeJeune.

“The majority of the spinach comes from one location, which is probably why you have a national problem,” LeJeune said. “The food supply and dissemination is different then it is for, say, ground beef.”

LeJeune said although the investigation will be lengthy for the Food and Drug Administration and scientists, he hopes his team can help speed up the process.

“This is going to be an on-going investigation, to dissect what happened and why people got sick,” LeJeune said. “We hope the data from our research will become available to answer some of these questions. It will all come out in the wash.”