E. coli and sprouts
The bacterium Escherichia coli is one of the coliform bacteria normally found in the intestinal tract of humans and other animals.
The presence of coliforms in food or drinking water would normally indicate faecal contamination from sewage or animal manure.
I hope I am wrong, but we are now faced with the possibility that an aggressive new strain of this bacterium is managing for the first time to live outside its normal environment - i.e. on or in sprouting plant seeds. This is very bad news for those of us who appreciate the health benefits of this raw vegan food. The Food Standards Agency’s advice that all sprouted seeds should be thoroughly cooked is advice that many of us will be reluctant to accept, althoughit is the only 100% safe approach.
What can we do instead?
If we choose to ignore the FSA advice, continue to eat raw sprouts but reduce the risk, we should:
- Do our own sprouting rather than trust a company to do it for us.
- Do not sprout in conditions that E. coli likes. In the German outbreak it was noted: “Bean sprouts are grown from seeds, some in steam drums at a temperature of 38C. As the agriculture minister for Lower Saxony, Gert Lindemann, puts it, this is "ideal" breeding ground for all bacteria.”
- Therefore, keep sprouting temperatures well below body temperature (37° C)
- In the lower part of the intestine, conditions are slightly alkaline - pH 7.4 If the rinsing and soaking water was slightly acidified with a small amount of vinegar or lemon juice, we could achieve about pH 6.0, which is a good value for soil to grow many vegetables, but rather more acid than E. coli is used to. [This is theoretical, it needs research on its effectiveness and the amount of vinegar /lemon juice to add.]
- Rinse the sprouts twice a day to remove soluble substances released by the germinating seeds that bacteria (and moulds) like to feed on
- Keep the sprouting jar tilted so that water and carbon dioxide (produced during respiration by the sprouts) can drain out through the perforated lid of the jar and fresh air can enter. This is to keep the sprouts healthy and germinating quickly so that any bacteria or fungi have less chance of taking over.
- As soon as there has been the minimum acceptable amount of sprouting, rinse again and put the whole jar in the refrigerator, with the perforated lid on so that the seed can still ‘breathe’.
- Use the sprouts as soon as possible. Try to plan so that you don’t make more sprouts than you can use within 2 days.
- Thoroughly clean sprouting equipment after use and sterilise with boiling water.
What could producers have done better?
Surely they must have allowed contamination to occur?
Klaus Verbeck, managing director of the farm in Germany, is reported as saying: "The salad sprouts are grown only from seeds and water, and they aren't fertilised at all. There aren't any animal fertilisers used in other areas on the farm either." (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-13665785 again.
If this is true, then perhaps a domestic animal (e.g cat or dog) or wild animal (e.g. rat or pigeon) obtained access and caused the contamination?
We have to be prepared to re-consider everything.
Are compost toilets as safe as we have thought?
In the light of E. coli's ability to attack the bladder and the kidneys, can we even assume that it is still safe to use urine as a compost accelerator?
The real answer must be to take more control over our food supply. Even the suggestions I made earlier made not be enough in the light of this.
From the same webpage:
“Dr Stephen Smith, a clinical microbiologist at Trinity College Dublin, said: "E. coli can stick tightly to the surface of seeds needed to make sprouts and they can lay dormant on the seeds for months, during germination the population of bugs can expand 100,000 fold.
"However, and this is probably the key to the German outbreak, the bacteria are inside the sprout tube as well as outside. Thus washing probably had no effect. The bottom line is that it is crucial to source where the seeds came from and recall any stock."
This last sentence is important in the light of the most recent incident with Thompson and Morgan. Apparently the seeds were grown in Italy, packaged in the UK, then sold in France, where people became ill.
The most popular seed to sprout is probably the Mung bean. The last batch I bought came from China! The only alternative I could find was from Myanmar (Burma), which I boycott for obvious reasons.
To me this is crazy, we need Local Food for many reasons. How can we exert proper control when food moves from country to country like this? As well as diseases of humans and other animals, plant pests and diseases are spread by food imports. British agriculture should get its act together!
Where did this new disease come from? Some speculation...
E. coli exists in many strains; some living harmlessly as part of our normal gut bacteria, others causing severe diarrhoea, especially in infants. Some of the features of the recent outbreaks have long been recognised:
“Escherichia coli may cause more serious trouble by invading the bladder and pelvis of the kidney, where it produces a chronic and often very stubborn inflammation.”
(M. Frobisher, “Fundamentals of Microbiology”, Seventh Edition, 1965) This book also states:”There is no doubt that genetic materials, including genes or gene-like bodies, are commonly transferred from one bacterial cell to another” and goes on to describe a form of sexual reproduction [which mixes the genes] in E. coli.
It comes as no surprise that GM scientists just love E. coli:
There is widespread opposition to GM food, as we know that we can (at least in Europe) easily find enough non-GM food. However, we are easily convinced that we need the latest medicines when we are sick and don't ask too many questions of the multi-national drug companies. So, of course, they take the easy route and very many commonly-used drugs are now GM. Doesn't it seem strange, using bacteria to produce antibiotics – and then to be surprised when other bacteria become resistant to antibiotics!
[I have to confess to a personal interest here. More than a year ago my dentist gave me an antibiotic to treat a gum infection. I was reluctant to accept the synthetic penicillin he offered me, telling him how it had previously upset my stomach, so he gave me erythromycin instead, which I had never had before. After that upset my stomach even more and 4 different probiotics hadn't helped, I did a web search. One site claimed that it could be produced from a GM strain of E. coli, but I was sceptical until I saw the last web page I've quoted.]
So, with all these GM strains out there with their genes scrambled up, what happens when one or more of them inevitably escapes and mixes with 'wild' strains? Could this be the origin of the killer strain?
The strain has been described as a hybrid between a very 'sticky' strain and an extremely rare strain from South Korea that has only ever infected one person. What are the chances of this hybridisation occurring by chance?
We'll probably never be given the answers to these questions, but just be left to make our own decisions on how to cope. These decisions may be hard, but we can't ignore them. We have to discuss them openly and make a united response to show how seriously we take food issues.