One day while driving home from school, I asked my mom, “What is my purpose in life?” Before she could address my question, my little sister Martha spoke up and said, “I know what my purpose in life is – to not eat a bug.” That may sound like a funny comment coming from a five-year old, but this comment has a dark and near deadly story behind it.
The bug Martha was referring to is E. coli O157:H7, a deadly strain of bacteria that was identified in the 1980s. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s “Bad Bug Book,” E. coli O157:H7 is a rare variety of E. coli that produces large quantities of potent toxins. The infection can progress into the dangerous hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which destroys red blood cells and can lead to kidney failure and even death.
Today, I’m going to share Martha’s bug story with you; provide an update on both government and industry initiatives to address E. coli O157:H7;and, finally, explain what we as consumers can do to protect ourselves.
In August 2002, my little sister Martha was fighting for her life against this dangerous, often lethal strain of bacteria. Initially, my parents thought that Martha’s diarrhea was normal for a child teething. But at night she was more than crabby, she screamed. At only 16 months of age, Martha couldn’t tell us what was wrong. After 10 days of painful symptoms and several visits to the clinic, test results finally revealed Martha was suffering from E. coli O157:H7.
Martha was rushed to the Mayo Children’s Hospital in nearby Rochester, MN. She was hooked up to an IV to avoid dehydration and overworking her kidneys. Martha progressively got worse in the hospital. She lost 5 lbs. – a significant amount of weight for a 16-month old that only weighed 24 lbs. to begin with prior to getting sick.
The second night in the hospital, Martha’s blood hemoglobin dropped to dangerous levels as her body entered the dreaded state of HUS. Doctors hurried to give her a blood transfusion to help her body fight the infection.
Thankfully, within 24 hours of the transfusion, our prayers were answered. Her blood tests showed some encouraging numbers. Unlike many E. coli patients, Martha did not need kidney dialysis or a second transfusion. Remarkably, she was released from the hospital after five days, returning for follow-up blood tests. But it wasn’t over yet. It wasn’t until Martha celebrated her second birthday in April 2003 – eight months after the ordeal – that the toxins were completely out of her body and she finally gained back the 5 lbs. she had lost through the sickness.
Where and how did Martha pick-up this devastating bacteria? As farmers and livestock producers, the source shouldn’t surprise us. The possibilities and risks are very real.
While E. coli O157:H7 is often associated with eating undercooked ground beef, it is first found in the stomach of cattle – healthy cattle – and released in manure. E.coli O157:H7 can be found on all dairy and beef farms. While Martha was too young to be eating hamburgers, she was a thumb sucker and could easily have picked up the bacteria somewhere on our farm or at a county fair we had just visited. The exact source of Martha’s infection will never be known.
The good news is that today Martha is a healthy and happy 12-year old. For that, our family is very thankful. The other good news is that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that progress has been made in reducing several food-borne infections.Their 2010 “FoodNet Report Card” shows infection caused by E. coli O157:H7 declined by 44%. Itwas the only one of the nine infections tracked to reach the 2010 national health objective target. Furthermore, E. coli O157:H7 in fresh ground beef declined 72% between 2000 and 2010.
Overall, the CDC credits this downward trend in food-borne infections in part to three reasons:
- Enhanced knowledge about preventing contamination;
- Cleaner slaughter methods and better inspections in ground beef processing plants and;
- Increased awareness of the risk of consuming undercooked ground beef and other produce that can carry the bacteria at restaurants and at home.
The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act assures these downward trends will continue. Speaking at a 2011 Food Safety Conference, Michael Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods, called the changes historic and profound.
“Prevention of food-borne illness, not reaction to problems, is now the guiding principle of our food safety law – and the primary responsibility for prevention resting squarely on the shoulders of food producers and processors,” he said.
What efforts are producers and processors taking to deliver on their responsibility? The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association reports on its website that safety measures integrated throughout the production process creates a robust food safety system.
The most promising areas have been research in the early stages of production. For example, vaccines and different feed supplements have been effective in reducing and eliminating E.coli in cattle. Packing plants have also taken charge by using steam pasteurization; hot water and organic acid washes; and Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) programs, which help identify and solve problems before they happen.
Beef is just one of several food industries affected by E. coli O157:H7. Spinach, lettuce and sprouts were the most recent sources of outbreaks in 2012. Raw milk, apple juice and well water have also been sources of E. coli O157:H7 infections.
A major E. coli outbreak in 2006 linked to spinach left 205 people sick and resulted in three deaths. Since then, farmers, shippers and processors in California have taken voluntary measures to improve food safety through the California Leafy Greens Handler Marketing Agreement.
As consumers, all of us have a responsibility toward this food safety issue as well. The CDC recommends that:
- All ground beef be cooked thoroughly to 160° F.
- Don’t spread bacteria in your kitchen through cross-contamination.
- Drink only pasteurized milk, juice, or cider.
- Drink water from safe sources – don’t swallow lake or pool water while you’re swimming.
- Wash your hands with hot soapy water. This is especially important for family and friends who might be visiting a farm, or have been around livestock at a county fair.
All experiences – good or bad – happen for a reason. Through FFA, I have discovered my purpose and passion – and that is to raise beef cattle just like my father. The experience my family went through with Martha underscores the significant responsibility we have as beef producers to provide others with safe, wholesome food. “Martha’s Bug Story” is now part of my foundation for my future as a beef producer, and it is one responsibility I am committed to delivering.
I share “Martha’s Bug Story” in the hope that other farm families, especially those with small children, won’t experience what Martha did. According to Martha, this devastating event gave her life a purpose – to never eat a bug.
Editor's Note: Mary Moenning, a member of the Hayfield, MN, FFA chapter, details her little sister Martha’s near-fatal experience as an infant with E. coli O157:H7 in underscoring the importance of beef safety. This presentation won Mary a second-place finish in the Minnesota State FFA Convention speaking competition this spring.
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