The German E. Coli Outbreak: Questions and Answers

A leading nutritionist discusses tainted salads, food safety laws, irradiation, and whether women are really more at risk than men

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I've had lots of questions from readers about aspects of the devastating E. coli outbreak in Germany and thought it might be useful to round them up and tackle them all at once.

Does anyone understand why this toxic strain of E. coli seems most deadly in women?

It is not clear that these bacteria are more virulent in women than in men. What seems to be happening is that women are more likely to have eaten salads. Epidemiologists say that if women are more affected than men in an outbreak, the culprit is likely to be something in salad. If men are more affected, the source is likely to be meat.

Is it possible it's from runoff from a factory farm, as with the 2006 spinach E. coli outbreak?

That outbreak was traced to a farm in California, but the outbreak E. coli strain was never found on that farm. It was found at a cattle crossing a mile away. Did the bacteria get to the spinach through a change in the water table (or runoff), through the droppings of wild boar, or through farm workers? Nobody really knows, but the favorite theory seems to be wild boar (I have my doubts, as I discuss in my book Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, 2010).

My question again is can the contaminants be rendered ineffective through high heat cooking, as in stir fry?

Definitely. Heat kills bacteria, and quickly. If you are worried about spinach or any other vegetable, drop it in rapidly boiling water for 30 seconds to a minute.

What is the best way to protect yourself from foodborne illness, especially from fresh produce?

The only way to be 100-percent sure is to cook food and eat it piping hot. Short of that: Wash your veggies! Always. In tap water. Tap water is chlorinated and will kill most pathogens. But—and it is a big but—these toxic forms of E. coli are capable of making sticky biofilms that cannot easily be washed off. Cooking is the only way to be absolutely certain.

What is your feeling about irradiation?

I also discuss irradiation in my book Safe Food. Lots of people love the idea because it's an effective kill step. It is a little rough on lettuce and other leafy greens, however. Most of all, it's what I call a late-stage techno-fix. It fixes the problem after the damage has been done and assumes that no system can be put in place to produce food safely. But food can be produced safely, and should be. I love quoting Carol Tucker Foreman on the topic of irradiation: "sterilized poop is still poop."

Couldn't it still be sprouts?

Presented by

Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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