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Davis, California

Sunday, April 21, 2024

E. coli outbreak forces Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods recall

In seven states on the West Coast, salads and sandwiches were recalled from Trader Joe’s stores due to an E. coli outbreak. The contamination has been traced back to the company Glass Onion catering (based in Richmond, CA), which also distributes to Whole Foods and Walgreens, among other familiar retailers.

“To be honest, I am not surprised about the outbreak,” said Christine Bruhn, the director at the Center for Consumer Research at the UC Davis Department of Food Science and Technology. “It was nearly inevitable because we don’t have 100 percent security against hidden bacteria.”

According to the Food Safety and Inspection Services, this is classified as a high-risk situation, recalling approximately 181,620 pounds of ready-to-eat salad and sandwich products if they were produced between Sept. 23 and Nov. 6. There is an official list of 16 contaminated items from the Glass Onion distributor.

Among the contaminated items were the Trader Joe’s Mexicali Salad with Chili Lime Chicken and Trader Joe’s Fresh Field Chopped Salad with Grilled Chicken, and other salads and wraps containing chicken or ham.

“This type of outbreak is not uncommon,” said Maria Marco, a UC Davis professor of food microbiology. “The FDA has new food safety laws to improve prevention of contamination, so companies are very accountable for pathogens. The worst case scenario is something like this where people are getting sick.”

There were 26 cases of confirmed E. coli poisoning in three states from these products. Common symptoms of E. coli poisoning include dehydration, bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps that last anywhere between two to eight days after consumption of contaminated foods.

“E. coli can affect food products in many ways including improper handling, cross contamination and not cooking food to the proper minimum temperature,” said Anjali Ganpule, a fourth-year food science and technology major.

According to Marco, there is possible kidney affectation in the form of renal failure, and the major consequences may even be fatal.

“It is unlikely that the E. coli contamination originated from the meat itself because it was fully cooked,” Bruhn said. “There is the possibility of cross contamination from the greens, because when processing greens, there is no kill step for the bacteria.”

According to Bruhn, the bacteria can hide in the creases and folds of the greens or in the plant stomata. The food production should have a rinsing step, and the consumer may rinse the produce similarly, but there is no way for the bacteria to be completely eradicated.

“Given the statistics of foodborne outbreak, where 24 percent come from fruits and nuts, 23 percent from vines, stalk and veggies and 13 percent from beef, it is increasingly more likely that the contamination originated from the produce,” Bruhn said.

There are a number of possible causes of origination in this case, and the Center for Disease Control will be conducting “traceback” to prevent future E. coli outbreaks, at least in this same form, from the same source.

“Normally, it is necessary to consume thousands of contaminated bacterial cells to become infected, but for E. coli poisoning, consuming only 100, or even a few cells can affect the host,” Marco said.

The possibility of cross contamination is made stronger by the evidence that the original 16 products had contaminated even more than was originally listed by proximity or contact.

“My roommate and I attempted to purchase two packages of ground turkey on Nov. 12, but at the checkout, we realized a strong rancid smell coming from the meat,” said Brian Soto, a Trader Joe’s consumer. “The manager was called, who said that those should not have been on the shelf to begin with, because they had been in contact with the recalled items.”

According to Marco, E. coli can live in the intestines of the animals without causing symptoms. The bacterium should be killed by fully cooking the meat, but if the meat is not fully cooked (as in Soto’s experience), then the cells can thrive.

“You never know about food safety. Until they clean all processing equipment, which should be every day anyway, I won’t feel comfortable eating the formerly contaminated products,” said Roshy Agahi, a fourth-year food science and technology major. “If E. coli has got one part of [a food supply], it’s got all of it.”

It is advised that anyone currently possessing any of the affected products or anything potentially contaminated should return them to the retailer for a full refund or dispose of them as quickly as possible to prevent further spread by cross contamination and/or infection by consumption.

The list of all reportedly contaminated products can be found at fsis.usda.gov.


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