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Poisoned Food

May 18, 2007 |

WHITFIELD: Poisoned food. More concerns this morning about potentially deadly E. coli contamination. Nearly 130,000 pounds of beef products being recalled in 15 states in the Southeast and in the Midwest. And we've seen E. coli outbreaks linked to meat and vegetables recently a lot. It seems too much.

So CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta joins me live to discuss the safety of our food.

We're getting real nervous. At least I am. It seems like, you know, we've got to guess every day. What is it we're allowed to eat? What can we do about getting things like E. coli off spinach?


WHITFIELD: Possible?

GUPTA: Yes. You know, it's interesting. As you were talking about that beef recall, it sort of reminded me that in the '90s, it was always about beef, the E. coli outbreaks. And now it's become much more about produce, about spinach and lettuce.

The cattle industry was able to shape up, but a lot of people say the produce industry has been slow to respond.

You know, I was sort of curious you hear about the triple washing of spinach, for example.


GUPTA: How effective is that? Does it really work?

We talked a lot about that in the special coming up this weekend. But I want to give you a little bit of a sense of what we found.

GUPTA (voice over): It takes only a pinpoint's worth of E. coli 0157-H7 to make you sick. As few as 100 cells. Young children and the very old are the most vulnerable to its toxin.

E. coli 0157 is also extremely hearty. It's resistant to cold. And in one test it survived on a leaf of lettuce for 77 days.

Mansour Samadpour knows all about deadly bacteria. He's president of IEH Laboratories, a Seattle-based company that tests salad greens for E. coli and other pathogens.

MANSOUR SAMADPOUR, PRESIDENT, IEH LABORATORIES: So every 15 minutes they can double in numbers. So, you could have one cell going in, and after 24 hours you can have billions of them. And toxin is released, it's absorbed, and starts killing the intestinal cells and makes its way throughout the body.

GUPTA: We asked Samadpour to contaminate spinach leaves with E. coli 0157 and then use various methods to remove the bacteria. Washing it off in water, 50 parts per million of chlorine bleach in water, the same as the commercial processors use, and then two commercially available vegetable washers.

SAMADPOUR: This product you have to spray. After that, you mix.

GUPTA: Finally, bleach and the vegetable washes.

SAMADPOUR: We're measuring the amount of bacteria that were on these leaves before the treatment and after the treatment, and we can determine what the impact of the treatment was. GUPTA: Now, the unwashed spinach had 11,700 bacterial colonies. Each is one or two organisms. More than enough to make you sick.

GUPTA: So, how many people are really going to do all of that to their spinach before they eat it at home?

You know, it's pretty amazing. But, you know, on an optimistic note, talking about the cattle industry, they were able to fix the problem. So I think that this is a fixable problem.

But with the produce industry, this has largely been voluntary. There's no mandatory regulations. The USDA, the FDA still can't even pull products off the shelves. That all has to be done on a voluntary basis.

WHITFIELD: So it's voluntary. That means there's really no penalty, no real incentive for any of these companies to do something about it. It's up to you, the consumer?

GUPTA: Well, yes. And part, you know, I mean and that's part of what we really wanted to talk about in the special coming up this weekend.

There are steps that can be taken between the farm and the fork. A lot of those steps are not being taken with produce as of yet.

It was interesting. With all these different washes and stuff as well.


GUPTA: some of them you know, take some of the E. coli off. We started with about 12,000 E. coli organisms, and like just vigorously washing them in tap water takes it down to about 3,000.

The commercial washes really weren't that effective at all. Triple washing probably doesn't make that huge an impact. And remember, the most important thing, it only takes about 100 organisms to get you sick.


GUPTA: That's nothing.

WHITFIELD: And so we're not going to do chlorine washes at home. Is there really anything we can do to try to make sure what we consume is somewhat more safe?

GUPTA: I think there are a few things. And one thing is to think about produce the same way you think about raw meat.

People put those in different categories. Remember, with raw meat, you have a kill step. You cook it. And that gets rid of the organisms. The produce, you don't have that. So use different cutting boards, for example. Wash your hands before and after so you don't spread the E. Coli if it's there to other foods.

And use different cutting boards, things like that. Really make sure you're treating it the same way that you treat raw meat.

WHITFIELD: Oh, yes. Good advice. Wash those cutting boards.

GUPTA: Wash the cutting boards as well.


WHITFIELD: So important.

GUPTA: And don't forget refrigerators, especially in the hotter weather. It can double every few minutes the number of bacteria. So use the refrigerator as well.

WHITFIELD: All right. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, thanks so much.

GUPTA: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: I'm still afraid of eating now. You didn't comfort me any.

GUPTA: Watch the special. I hope you feel better after that.

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