How clean is your cucumber?

Travellers in third world countries are warned about not eating raw fruit or vegetables unless they’ve peeled them but few are concerned in countries with better standards of hygiene.

I’ve had giardia which has made me a bit paranoid about what I eat when away from home but I’d never have worried about salads in Germany.

However, that was before the news of illness and deaths there as a result of  haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS) and enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC):

The number of patients in Germany presenting with HUS and bloody diarrhoea caused by STEC is 470, which is 97 more than the day before, and 1064 of EHEC, which is an increase of 268. Overall in Europe, 499 cases of HUS and 1115 cases of EHEC have been reported, 1614 in total.

Cases have now also been notified from: Austria (HUS 0, EHEC 2), Denmark (7, 7), France, (0, 6), Netherlands (4, 4), Norway, (0, 1), Spain, (1, 0), Sweden (15, 28) and Switzerland (0, 2) and the United Kingdom. (2, 1) All these cases except two are in people who had recently visited northern Germany or in one case, had contact with a visitor from northern Germany.

The BBC reports 16 people have died of the disease and the cause hasn’t been ascertained.

It was originally blamed on Spanish cucumbers at considerable cost:

Spain’s fruit and vegetable exporters estimate they have been losing more than 200m euros ($290m; £174m) since the outbreak emerged.

Germany has admitted the bacteria did not come from Spain as initially reported, but said the decision to issue the warning had been correct as a different strain of E.coli was present in Spanish cucumbers.

The speed and extent of the impact on Spanish producers is horrifying and reinforces the need for vigilance with food production and processing here for both health and financial reasons.

Siouxsie Wiles gives a scientist’s perspective on the outbreak:

Recently, researchers have shown how plants become contaminated with EHEC, and it makes scary reading. Most people would think that as long as they gave their vegetables a decent rinse before putting them in their salad, then all would be well. If only it were that simple. It turns out that the bacteria aren’t just hanging around on the surface of the plant. Shaw and colleagues (1) showed that EHEC attach to the very cells that open and close the pores plants use for gas exchange. From here, the bacteria can then get inside of the plant cell, where no amount of rinsing can reach them.

It’s not easy to get your five plus servings of fresh fruit and vegetables when you’re travelling at the best of times, but I’d rather risk a little vitamin and fibre deprivation than a stomach bug like this.

9 Responses to How clean is your cucumber?

  1. robertguyton says:

    I understand the e.coli came from animal manure.

  2. gravedodger says:

    Robert yes, Bovine GI tract as I understand it, your point being

  3. robertguyton says:

    Cow shit Dodger?
    Worse still, given the environment I’m living in – Southland, Bovine heaven.I suppose that could read New Zealand, Cow Country’ – cause for concern indeed. Fortunately, my vegetables and fruits come out of my own cow-manure-free garden.

  4. Stef says:

    If you can boil it or peel it you can eat otherwise forget it.

  5. homepaddock says:

    Robert – they haven’t worked out where the e coli came from yet. The first report was improperly “cooked” manure from an organic farm in Spain but that has since been ruled out.

    Stef – you can peel cucumbers but maybe the ones which caused the problem weren’t. Although if I understand Siouxsie’s point the infection can get inside the plant cell so even peeling wouldn’t protect you.

  6. Cadwallader says:

    This is genuinely interesting. I heard the BBC reporting on the problems in Europe 2-3 nights ago. The proponent who was reported stated that GE modified crops would probably be exempt from carrying E Coli. Further, I understand that there is a significant drought in Europe presently which may lead to food shortages later in their summer. Not a good look. I am content to spend our winter eating roasts…meat and vegetables.

  7. poneke says:

    My daughter is spending this year as a high school exchange student in Germany with a host family who are…. vegetarian.

    She seems to be surviving well and in fact because of the change of diet, she discovered she had been lactose intolerant probably for years. She’s now even in training for the Frankfurt marathon.

    We have shared many jokes this past few days about the March of the Killer Cucumbers.

  8. robertguyton says:

    Well Ele, we know it’s not coming from the organic cucumber farm in Spain!

  9. homepaddock says:

    Robert – yes, I wrote that in the post: “Germany has admitted the bacteria did not come from Spain as initially reported . . .”

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