E. Coli-Tainted Lettuce Highlights Food Contamination Problem

lettuceTennessee became the fourth state to be hit by the E. coli outbreak caused by tainted Romaine lettuce, USA Today reported on Thursday. As of this post, there have been 23 confirmed and 7 probable cases of illness. A total of 12 patients have been hospitalized, 3 of whom have developed kidney failure. None have died so far. Consumers in Michigan, New York and Ohio have also been affected by the outbreak. The contaminated lettuce has been traced to a farm in Yuma, Arizona.

E. coli is one of the most notorious food-borne pathogens. Infected patients usually experience a few days of diarrhea and abdominal cramps, but some patients may develop a condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can lead to kidney failure. Although the CDC reports that a incidences of a particularly severe form of E. coli decreased significantly, and the overall number of food-borne illnesses decreased in 2009 compared to the previous three years, illnesses related to other pathogens increased or showed little change. Considering that 17, 468 laboratory-confirmed cases of food-borne illnesses were reported last year, consumers are still at risk of gulping down a delicious dose of bacteria. Earlier E. coli outbreaks in the past five years have occurred in such common foods as spinach, beef, and yes, lettuce. Other food-borne pathogens, such as salmonella and listeria, have made headlines with their own recalls–most notably, the 2009 peanut butter-salmonella outbreak, which sickened hundreds. Recently, deli meats were recalled in Canada for possible listeria contamination.

Companies such as Vermicon and Biological Consulting Services, along with organizations such as the Midwest Research Institute, can test food and beverages to identify potentially harmful pathogens. Safe Foods of North Little Rock, Ark., takes a different approach: The company offers products designed to stave off contamination. Among other products, Safe Foods markets Fresh Light, which uses ultraviolet disinfectant technology to control pathogens in brines and marinades.

Why does food safety continue to be such a prevalent problem in the U.S.? What are some ways technology can help prevent food-borne illnesses?

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