Fighting food bugs.
After being stricken with E. coli O157:H7 last January, Katie Maples spent 12 days in an Indianapolis hospital battling for her life. Health officials don't know where she picked up the food-borne bug.
"Katie's better now," says her mother, Debbie Maples. "But it's not over for us." Katie may have permanent kidney damage.
E. coli O157:H7 is a vicious new strain of bacterium that causes bloody diarrhea, cramps, dehydration, and, in severe cases, kidney failure, blindness, and death. You're most likely to pick it up from eating undercooked contaminated ground beef. But outbreaks have also been traced to lettuce, alfalfa sprouts, and unpasteurized apple juice.
What's being done to protect the food supply against bacteria like E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, and Campylobacter, which kill 25 Americans--and sicken thousands of others--every day?
Here's the latest dispatch from the safe-food front.
Wanted: Meat Inspector. Must have good nose.
That ad could have appeared in any paper in the U.S. last year. It could also have appeared in 1900.
For centuries, people have used their fingers and noses to look for visible signs of disease or decay in meat. Sometimes--with tumors or obvious spoilage, for example--they'd find it. More often--with odorless bacteria, say--they wouldn't.
Enter HACCP (HASS-ip). Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points became mandatory at the nation's 300 or so largest meat and poultry processing plants in January. Smaller plants must adopt it by the year 2000.
The idea behind HACCP is simple: Food processors have to identify the weak links in their production lines--places where food-borne bugs are most likely to creep in. And they've got to figure out how to monitor those points and prevent contamination.
HACCP appears to be working. In the first three months of 1998, the U.S. Department of Agriculture temporarily shut down a record 34 meat-packing plants or production lines for violating safety standards. Some failed to test for E. coli, the feds charged, while others didn't follow the cleanliness standards they had set for themselves.
But companies need to do more to catch tainted food before it's shipped to market. Among the technologies they're looking into:
The idea is brilliant: Protect animals against harmful bacteria by exposing them to benign bacteria. Last spring, the Food and Drug Administration okayed the first competitive exclusion product.
Preempt is a water-bacteria mix that's sprayed over newly-hatched chicks. As the birds preen themselves, they ingest the "good" bacteria, which fill up the spots on their intestinal walls where harmful Salmonella might take hold. No free spots, no Salmonella.
"By the time the chicks are placed on the farm, they're totally protected from Salmonella," says John DeLoach, president of MS BioScience Inc., the Dundee, Illinois, biotechnology company that developed Preempt. MS BioScience is testing a similar product in pigs.
Most poultry companies are reserving judgement.
"The jury is still out on how effective it is," says Archie Schaffer, a spokesman for poultry giant Tyson Foods. The company wants to monitor the spray in one of its plants before deciding whether to use it.
Researchers at the University of Georgia are working on a similar treatment that would keep E. coli O157:H7 from gaining a foothold in cattle.
"When we introduce good E. coli in cattle, within two to three weeks it has eliminated the O157:H7," says Michael Doyle, head of the university's Food Science and Technology Department. But Doyle predicts that it will be a few years before the treatment is available.
Fast-food chain Jack in the Box was at the center of the 1993 outbreak that put E. coli O157:H7 on the map. Contaminated Jack in the Box burgers were linked to the deaths of four children in the Pacific Northwest and made more than 700 people ill.
That's probably why the chain now requires that ground beef destined for Jack in the Box restaurants be sampled every 15 minutes as it moves down the production line. That far exceeds the testing requirements of the new HACCP rules.
"Serial sampling enables you to know the microbial status of your meat supply all through the day," says David M. Theno, vice president for quality assurance at Foodmaker Inc., Jack in the Box's parent company. "This practice has enabled us to reduce the microbial levels over a hundred-fold and, in many cases, over a thousand-fold."
Other fast-food chains have also substantially beefed up their testing programs since the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak.
It's the top gun against E. coli O157:H7 and other heat-sensitive bugs on beef.
"Steam pasteurization reduces bacterial contamination by 99.9 percent," says Mark Klein, a spokesman for Cargill Inc., the huge Minneapolis-based agribusiness that co-developed the technology.
"It's by far the most effective treatment we have so far," echoes Jim Marsden, a professor of meat science at Kansas State University, where the prototype was tested in 1995.
In the processing plant, sides of beef are blasted with steam as they pass through a 32-foot-long stainless steel chamber. The meat is exposed long enough for the surface temperature to hit 180 [degrees] F (which wipes out any bacteria), but not long enough to start cooking the meat.
"It's automated, so the human error aspects are not so great," says Graham Clarke, Chief of Red Meat Inspection at Agri-Food Canada. "It's not going to put any foreign chemicals on the meat, and it seems for all intents and purposes to be safe."
Cargill has already installed steam pasteurization chambers in its six North American plants. And IBP Corp, the biggest U.S. producer of fresh beef and pork, is doing the same in all its beef processing plants, says spokesman Gary Mickelson.
The process isn't failsafe, though.
"The problem with steam pasteurization is that it's done at the carcass level," explains Marsden. "Eventually you've got to break down that carcass into cuts of meat. If you recontaminate for any reason, you're back to square one."
Flecks of mud and hair can land on a beef carcass when the hide is removed. Processors used to trim those bits with a knife. Now they're more likely to use a hand-held steam vacuum.
"It's like a carpet cleaner," says Cargill's Mark Klein. "Steam comes out and any contaminants are pulled back in."
But the technology has limitations. It can only be used for spots, not a whole side of beef. And it's operated manually, so it can only treat areas that the operator sees.
Another problem, says Canada's Graham Clarke, is operator fatigue. "Towards tile end of the day, or if you have particularly dirty carcasses, it may not be as good as it should be."
Trisodium Phosphate (TSP)
TSP is a safe anti-microbial chemical rinse made by the French pharmaceutical giant Rhone-Poulenc. Studies show that poultry that passes through a TSP bath emerges Salmonella-free.
Shady Brook Farms has been using a TSP rinse on its turkeys for several years. "It virtually eliminates potentially hazardous pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, and other disease-causing bacteria," says the company.
Tyson Foods, which processes one out of every three chickens sold in the U.S., is "still evaluating the research to determine how effective TSP is," says spokesperson Archie Schaffer.
Some scientists worry that disposing of large quantities of TSP-treated water could harm the environment. (Phosphates have been removed from most laundry detergents for the same reason.)
Last December, following the well-publicized recall of 25 million pounds of possibly contaminated ground beef, the FDA approved irradiation for beef, lamb, and pork. (The process can't be used until the USDA writes guidelines, which could be ready by the end of the year.)
When food is irradiated, it's passed through a chamber containing rods of radioactive cobalt-60 or cesium-137. Powerful gamma rays kill almost all bacteria, insects, and mold (but not the agents that cause "mad cow" disease, botulism, or hepatitis).
While irradiated food isn't radioactive, it's far from perfect.
* Taste. "In a side-by-side test," New York Times food reporter Marian Burros wrote last December, "all the irradiated meats smelled funny, especially the ground beef.... The irradiated raw ground beef was also darker, and even after cooking there was a noticeable difference in taste--like steamed cow."
* Radiolytic Products. Some researchers are worried about chemicals called radiolytic products, which are created when food is irradiated. One problem: Lab rats can't be fed enough irradiated food to tell if radiolytic products cause cancer.
The World Health Organization and the FDA aren't worried. "The amount of radiolytic products formed is pretty small compared to when you cook food," says George Pauli, Director of Product Policy in the FDA's Office of Pre-Market Approval.
* Packaging. To prevent recontamination, food is irradiated after it's been packaged. "Irradiation might generate new compounds from the packaging's plastics and adhesives that can then migrate into the food," says George Sadler of the National Center for Food Safety and Technology in Summit-Argo, Illinois. The NCFST is an FDA-funded consortium of government, universities, and the food industry.
"We're currently evaluating what we know about the safety of the plastics and the adhesives," says Sadler. "It's likely that some will be okay and some will need more research," he adds.
* The Environment. Setting up irradiators for even a small percentage of the 13 billion pounds of hamburger that we eat each year (and the billions of pounds of chicken, vegetables, fruits, and other foods) means producing, transporting, working with, and eventually disposing of radioactive cobalt and cesium rods. And accidents happen.
* Covering Up Dirt. "I'm concerned that irradiation will be used as a substitute for good sanitation," says Carol Tucker Foreman, head of the Safe Food Coalition and an Assistant Secretary of Agriculture in the Carter Administration. "It's true that irradiated poop won't make you sick," she says of meat that has been contaminated with feces. "But it's still poop and you don't want to eat it."
Producers aren't exactly rushing to be the first on their block to irradiate ground beef and poultry, probably because consumers are leery of the technique.
Another kind of irradiation is catching the industry's eye, though. And this one appears to be safer.
Electron Beam Irradiation
"It works pretty much like a color TV set," says Kansas State University's Jim Marsden. "You essentially have an electron generator, and the electrons produce ionizing energy that kills bacteria. There are no radioactive materials involved whatsoever."
The technology is used to sterilize medical equipment. Marsden predicts that a prototype will be in a meat plant within a year.
What has the industry excited is that electron beam irradiation can be used right on the production line, much like the x-ray machines that are already there to detect plastic and metal fragments.
But technology only goes so far (see "Safe-Kitchen Tips").
"We all need to follow basic rules of cleaning, cooking, chilling, and keeping foods from becoming contaminated," says food safety expert Carol Tucker Foreman.
"It's essential that we take steps to protect ourselves."
RELATED ARTICLE: SAFE-KITCHEN TIPS
Ninety-five percent of food-borne illness is probably preventable. Here are some tips on what you can do:
At the Store
* Don't let juice from raw meat, poultry, or fish drip on to your hands or any fresh foods in your grocery cart. Raw juices may contain bacteria.
* Shop for cold and frozen products last. Use a cooler for the ride home, especially during the summer or if you're running other errands.
* Avoid unpasteurized milk and juice, and egg nog or other foods made with raw eggs.
In the Kitchen
* Always wash your hands in hot, soapy water before preparing and after handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs.
* Cook all meat and poultry--or casseroles that contain meat or poultry--at a minimum oven temperature of 325 [degrees] F.
* Cook meats thoroughly, but don't overcook them. Heat kills bacteria, but too much heat causes meat, poultry, and fish to form possibly carcinogenic compounds (see June 1998, p. 10). Use a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the meat. but don't insert it until the outside is seared or it could carry bacteria to the interior. The USDA says to cook your meat at least to these internal temperatures: beef, lamb, or veal--145 [degrees] F: ground beef, lamb, or any pork--160 [degrees] F: ground poultry--165 [degrees] F: whole chicken or turkey--180 [degrees] F (measured in the thigh).
* Keep your refrigerator at no more than 40 [degrees] F and your freezer at 0 [degrees] F.
* Don't store raw fish in your refrigerator for more than 24 hours. Raw poultry or ground beef will keep for one to two days and raw red meat for three to five.
* Thaw frozen food in the fridge or in a microwave, not at room temperature.
* Never put cooked food on the plate used when it was raw.
* To keep bacteria from growing, put your sponge or scouring pad in the dishwasher every time you run it.
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|Title Annotation:||includes information on kitchen safety|
|Publication:||Nutrition Action Healthletter|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1998|
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