URBANA Will you ever feel comfortable eating fresh spinach again? All raw agricultural products carry a minimal risk of contamination, said a University of Illinois scientist whose research focuses on keeping foodborne pathogens, including the strain of E. coli found recently on spinach, out of the food supply.
That won't keep Scott Martin, a U of I food science and human nutrition professor, from eating bagged greens or other produce although he can see why it gives consumers pause.
"I definitely wouldn't eat spinach from the three California counties implicated in this latest outbreak of E. coli H0157:H7, but there have been no problems with spinach grown in other parts of the country," Martin said.
Martin said that food companies have recalled the particular products implicated in the outbreak, and that the contaminated spinach had a sell-by date of September 20, so none should remain on the shelves at this time.
If his reassuring tone makes the scientist sound less than aggressive toward E. coli 0157:H7 and other foodborne pathogens, you're mistaken. Martin and fellow U of I professor Hao Feng are dedicated to discovering ways to keep these microorganisms out of the food supply.
Martin's research is focused on finding ways to eliminate the biofilms that attach to produce and cause illness. "Once the pathogenic organism gets on the product, no amount of washing will remove it. The microbes attach to the surface of produce in a sticky biofilm, and washing just isn't very effective," he said.
"Another problem with this pathogen is that it has a very low infective dose. It only takes between 10 and 100 cells to cause an infection, so it's impossible to achieve a safe level of the pathogen once it gets on the product. At this point, we need to concentrate on avoiding a crop's exposure to the pathogen as the produce is being grown," he said.