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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

E. coli outbreak has officials wary, puzzled

The region’s agriculture and health officials continue to keep a wary eye on the outbreak of lethal food-born bacteria toxicity in Germany, although continued uncertainty about the extent or even the cause of the outbreak is limiting options.

The source of the new strain of E. coli bacteria that is proving unusually virulent was originally thought to be cucumbers or other produce from Spain, and then the source was said to be organically grown bean sprouts from Germany.

As of Monday afternoon, however, tests had not found any of the toxins on sprouts grown by the suspect farm in Germany, raising more questions about the outbreak.

There has been no evidence of the E. coli strain, known as O104 causing illness in the U.S. Officials say all produce, no matter where it comes from, should be washed before eating to ensure that dangerous bacteria are washed off.

The German situation also raises questions for organic farmers, who fear that the image of organic food being healthier than food grown by “agri-business” might get tainted.

“It’s certainly troubling to us that organics were fingered as the culprit – that’s what sticks in people’s mind,” said Don Franczyk, executive director of Bay State Organics in Massachusetts, a not-for-profit group that certifies organic produce in the Northeast.

New Hampshire Department of Agriculture certifies about 100 farms in the state as producing some organic produce, said Vickie Smith, who coordinates organic certification for the Agriculture Department. None of those farms produces bean sprouts, however.

Franczyk said there are only a “handful” of organic sprout producers in the Northeast, partly because it is standard practice to wash the seeds with chlorine in order to ensure they are clean before the sprouts are grown.

Sprouts are usually grown in warm, humid environments in which any E.coli bacteria sticking to the seeds can multiply quickly, which has led the Food and Drug Administration to encourage the use of chlorine wash. While using chlorine does not disqualify sprouts from being labelled organic under federal guidelines, it isn’t the sort of thing that many people who enter organic farming want to do.

“The idea of using chlorine routinely is not appealing,” Franczyk said.

Beth Daly, chief of infectious disease surveillance for New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, said uncertainty about the cause of an outbreak of the disease in Germany is not unusual.

“People eat hundreds of different food items, and the incubation period (for the disease) can be up to 10 days,” she said.

The method used by epidemiologists is to interview those who are sick, as well as those from the same area who aren’t sick, in an attempt to find common denominators.

“They can’t go on a wild-goose chase, so they look at what is the common food among the cases,” Daly said.

The most common dietary source of E. coli contamination is ground beef, she said.

Daly said New Hampshire, like most states at the urging of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has communicated with doctors and hospitals to keep an eye out for cases of bloody diarrhea from people who have returned from Europe, and to test for E. coli contamination.

The bacteria known as E. coli is common – in fact, many strains exist in the human gut and are needed for our digestion. But some strains are dangerous, producing digitoxins which can induce nausea, vomiting or diarrhea in people.

The strain found in Germany has, as of Monday afternoon, killed 22 people and infected more than 2,200 in a dozen countries. It is an extremely rare strain that causes bloody diarrhea and even kidney failure, and which strikes more adults and more women than usually are affected by the bacteria.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or