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Microbial Madness

The terrifying lethal strain of E Coli that recently infected over 2300 people in Germany has the entire globe concerned about food safety and microbial hazards. According to The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, this has been the deadliest E Coli outbreak in modern history. Researchers at UC Davis are conducting studies in order to learn more about the sources of microbial contamination in food and about how it can be prevented and treated.

Rob Atwill, UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine specialist in waterborne infectious diseases, has been conducting research on E Coli since 2006, when a multi-state outbreak of a lethal strain infected 200 Americans. The source of the 2006 outbreak was fresh baby spinach that was grown in Central California. Atwill and his research team aimed to determine the possible sources of E Coli near fresh produce fields in Central California. “It would be very difficult to create a perfectly sterile food product, especially if we want to continue to eat fresh, raw or minimally processed things,” stated Atwill.

In his lab, researchers examined fecal samples of wildlife to determine if dangerous microbial strains were present. Most of the bacteria present in the samples consisted of non-threatening strains. “We have a lot of animals that carry generic strains of bacteria, such as E Coli. The more pathogenic strains, like E Coli 0517 or salmonella have a much less common occurrence,” explained Research Assistant Kristine Fernandez. The strain Fernandez is referring to, 0517:H7, is one of over 700 different E Coli strains. Many E Coli strains are not pathogenic, and happily reside in the intestines of healthy people. Others, such as 0517:H7, result in severe infections that can lead to death. The pathogenic strain that recently infected Germany is know as E Coli O104:H4. The origin has yet to be found, although many specific vegetables have been ruled out.

Atwill explained that there is much to be learned about prevention and treatment of E Coli infections, saying, “It is difficult to safeguard every food grown in the U.S. If we’re worried

about pathogens and food-borne outbreaks entering the food supply, we must first and foremost determine how they get in. Is it processing? Do we need more tricks on how to deactivate whatever is infecting the product during that event? Or is it during distribution?”

The conclusion drawn from Atwill’s 4-year study was that wildlife poses the biggest threat to contamination of vegetables. The next step in research will be to determine how to prevent wildlife from infecting vegetables with harmful strains of bacteria, and will hopefully minimize both the prevalence and the fear of microbial hazards in food.

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