Keeping Microbes Off The Menu

Food-borne microbes trigger some 81 million cases of disease in the United States each year, according to the General Accounting Office (GAO), an investigative arm of Congress.

Moms - and the Food and Drug Administration - have long advocated washing fresh fruits and vegetables to evict any germs they harbor. However, it takes more than simple washing to eliminate all of the bacteria, new studies find.

Elizabeth Ehrenfeld of IDEXX Labs, a diagnostic testing service in Westbrook, Maine, examined 39 samples of fresh bean sprouts, all purchased from local grocers. On average, each gram of sprouts hosted more than 10 million coliform bacteria, she reported last week at a meeting in Atlanta of the American Society for Microbiology.

Though not usually posing a disease risk themselves, these bacteria, also present in soil, point to the potential for coincident contamination of crops with pathogens that might be present in fresh manure or human feces. Both are common crop fertilizers throughout much of the world.

Moreover, Ehrenfeld found that 10 samples of the fresh sprouts harbored E. coli - some with around 7,000 of the bacteria per gram. The presence of such fecal bacteria indicates that the samples were tainted by dirty hands during harvesting or distribution, she says.

"The surprise for me," she told Science News, "was that washing the sprouts did not drop the bacterial counts very much."

After depositing up to 100 million E. coli or salmonella on bacteria-free sprouts, she washed them three times in clean water. While this reduced the bacterial population, it still left up to 1 million microbes per gram of food - many thousands of times the number needed to sicken someone with a weakened immune system.

At the meeting, John Lopes of Microcide in Troy, Mich., reported finding an average of 63,000, listeria and aeromonas bacteria per gram of cauliflower from local groceries and 16 million per gram of radish. The bacteria detected do not cause human disease, but their presence shows that these foods can harbor live bacteria encountered in food handling - including deadly forms of listeria.

Contributing to the problem of tainted foods, an April 30 GAO report argues, is the increasing share of U.S. produce coming from countries without strict laws governing hygiene in food production and handling. Though federal law bans the importation of meat from nations without food safety systems equivalent to those in the United States, no similar prohibition exists for other foods.

Lacking resources to inspect even 2 percent of non-meat imports, FDA cannot be relied upon to keep pathogen-tainted products out of the U.S. food supply, the GAO report concludes.

Taken together, these data are fueling the development of anti-microbial agents safe enough for kitchen use on foods.

Susan S. Sumner of Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg finds that washing tainted produce with water "is better than dong nothing, but not a whole lot better."

Written by J. Raloff