GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
The goats in the Honolulu Zoo's petting zoo are a popular attraction for children. Washing of hands afterward is recommended to prevent the transmission of E. coli bacteria.
Specialist stresses tactics to avoid E. coli in Hawaii
Bacteria in many foods, petting zoos and even swimming pool water have caused illnesses similar to those reported in 23 states from bagged fresh spinach, a University of Hawaii food safety specialist says.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration attributed the illnesses to 0157:H7, a strain of the E. coli bacterium. No cases have been reported in Hawaii.
But Aurora Saulo, UH extension specialist in food technology, said, "With 0157:H7, what I'm worried about in terms of safety, it is a mean and wicked microorganism. It can go from no symptom to bloody diarrhea."
Children under age 5, seniors and people who are sick or undergoing chemotherapy seem to get more severe symptoms because their immune system is weakened or, with kids, not fully developed, she said.
The strain O157:H7 was first recognized in 1982 in contaminated hamburgers, which continue to be a major cause of E. coli, said Saulo, with the Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.
"In terms of food-borne illness it is not an insignificant problem," she said, explaining the strain is called "an emerging food-borne pathogen. We're still learning more about it. ...
"The thing about this strain, whenever there is an outbreak, it usually is sensational because a lot of cases come up because now we have a nationwide way of tracking food-borne illness."
Isle markets pulled fresh spinach and items containing fresh spinach off the shelves after an FDA warning last week, and the state Health Department asked residents not to eat such products.
However, frozen and canned spinach and spinach in cooked meals are safe, Saulo said.
She noted cases where children have died from E. coli-contaminated foods. "It really tears your heart. ... We have to learn where it comes from, how it's passed on and how we can prevent contamination."
About 85 percent of reported infections have been associated with food, Saulo said.
Foods that have been infected include ground beef, which should be cooked to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit in the center, unpasteurized apple and orange juice, and unpasteurized milk and cheese curds, she said.
Also, alfalfa sprouts, dry-cured salami, game meat, both lettuce and spinach, and swimming in or drinking contaminated water have been sources of infection, she said.
There was a case where children became infected in a wading pool in Atlanta, she noted. "It's a very nice environment for bacteria to grow."
Saulo said she always tells children when they have a hamburger to cut it in half before eating it. If they see any pink, they should tell their parents, who should make sure it is well cooked, she said.
It is also important to teach small children about washing their hands, Saulo said. "In Hawaii we say, 'Keep your eyes on the hands.' Yes, we include that in washing. Do you know where your hands have been?"
They should be washed thoroughly in hot soapy water after going to the bathroom, changing diapers or engaging in any activity where an E. coli organism can be transferred from one person to another, she said. Nursing homes, day-care centers and hospitals are risks for spread of infection if people do not properly wash their hands, she said.
Touching contaminated animals in petting zoos is another method of transmission, Saulo said. "They don't really have hygiene. Kids love them. Kids touch them."
Honolulu Zoo has a sign and a little kitchen area with a sink, antibacterial soap and water for children to wash their hands, said Jason Harris, who handles education outreach.
Even with tours, he said, "We take antibacterial soap with us so if someone accidentally puts a hand in bird poop or feeds animals, they can keep their hands clean."
Saulo also stresses the importance of washing fruits and vegetables before eating them.
The food industry also is focused on farm practices such as how produce is harvested and stored, and there are increasing guidelines from "farm to fork" to ensure safety of products, Saulo said.
"The threat is always there," Saulo added. Most people with mild symptoms recover in five to 10 days without treatment, she said.
But someone who has diarrhea, especially if it is bloody and especially if it is a child, should get immediate medical attention, she said.