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Germ Warfare

Incident at Odwalla

By Zack Stentz

An all-natural food product, previously thought safe from contamination, manufactured in a state-of-the-art facility by a respected northern California company is linked to an outbreak of deadly E. coli O157:H7 bacteria in western Washington and California.

Sound familiar? It should, because it describes not only the recent Odwalla incident but an eerily similar outbreak that struck the San Francisco Sausage Company's Columbus brand salami products back in December 1994, sweeping through Seattle and various California cities and sickening 24 people, mostly children, and sending two to the ICU unit with the potentially life threatening kidney disease, Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS). The previously respected company took a major financial and public-relations hit from which they are only now recovering, and the safety of an entire product category was called into question.

Also in both cases, advance warning existed that their products might not be safe from this new pathogen, first identified in 1982 and believed linked to 500-700 deaths and 20,000 illnesses in the U.S. each year. In the case of San Francisco Sausage, research papers had been published several months prior to the outbreak suggesting that O157:H7 might be able to survive the fermentation process used to cure dry salami, but the scientists and research organizations behind the study didn't see fit to share its results with the company until after the children started falling ill. And for Odwalla, there was the precedent of a full-blown outbreak in 1991, centered in Massachusetts and linked to cold-pressed apple cider, which should have--but didn't-- sound an alarm bell over the safety of using fallen apples from orchards with grazing cattle in fresh, unpasteurized juices.

And the parallels go further. Both suspected culprits--dry salami and unpasteurized apple juice-- were previously thought to be safe from bacterial contamination of all sorts, because of the acidic nature (between 4.2-4.5 pH) of the products. But O157:H7, the same strain linked to the deadly Jack in the Box outbreak of 1993 (also centered in Seattle--is this city cursed or what?), is a bacterium that breaks all the rules, much to the food industry's chagrin. Found in the intestines, milk, and fecal matter of cows, the organism is incredibly hardy, with resistance to acid, salinity, and low temperatures, and extremely virulent, shutting down kidneys, poisoning blood with toxins, and even liquefying the brain of one unfortunate Chicago boy. While Salmonella, Camplyobacter, and other food-borne bacteria require between 10,000-100,000 organisms per gram to cause illness in humans, the salami outbreak demonstrated that as little as one cell of O157:H7 was sufficient to induce full-blown HUS in victims-- not much room for error.

The extraordinary nature of O157:H7 has bedeviled the meat industry for years, and was the major impetus behind the recent wholesale reform of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)'s meat inspection regulations. But unlike meat, every beef patty, chicken wing, and pork rib of which must by law be deemed fit by a USDA inspector, juice regulation is the responsibility of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has neither the manpower nor the mandate to inspect individual plants on more than a spot basis. Heat treatment or keeping one's product away from bovine excrement are the only-sure-fire ways to keep one's product pathogen-free, but how Odwalla intends to accomplish this remains an open question, without changing the nature of their juices or making them prohibitively expensive (the fallen apples used for juice are far cheaper than ones picked off the tree before they can roll in bovine excrement).

Luckily for San Francisco Sausage and the entire dry salami industry, major steps were immediately taken by the company and USDA to improve sanitation, more closely inspect raw materials, and devise methods to ensure the absence of O157:H7. A much more sobering case which Odwalla might heed is offered by the case of another 1994 E. coli outbreak, this time linked to the Garibaldi company's mettwurst dry sausage products in Australia, which killed a child and sent that nation into a panic. There, the company and the Australian government failed to act quickly and decisively to combat the bacteriological menace. The result? The company linked to the outbreak went bankrupt, and the dry sausage industry in Australia completely collapsed.

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From the November 7-13, 1996 issue of Metro

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