Consumers who like their veggies raw may find themselves in the position of “making faith-based purchases when it comes to produce,” says Kevin Allen, a UBC food safety expert who studies E. coli and other pathogens.
In May, several U.S. states issued massive recalls for romaine lettuce contaminated by E. coli. Days later, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency also issued a recall of romaine lettuce.
Currently, government and beef and produce industries have procedures in place to monitor and test for E. coli O157:H7 bacterium. However, there are not yet any detection methods available to show up a strain such as E. coli O145 which was associated with the romaine outbreak in May.
While it is important that consumers continue to include fresh fruit and vegetables in their diet, notes Allen, they also need to understand that our produce is not risk free. “Certain commodities such as alfalfa sprouts and certain leafy greens are frequently associated with foodborne disease.”
An important facet of Allen’s work is looking at how and why E. coli is so successful at finding its way into, and surviving in, our food chain.
Prior to joining LFS in January as an assistant professor in the Food, Nutrition and Health program, Allen worked within industry, researching a vaccine to minimize E. coli O157 prevalence in cattle. He continues this task at UBC.
Allen is also comparing various strains of E. coli O157 to devise better food safety policies and intervention strategies. This fall, he will collect physiological data on how different stressors such as heat or chemicals affect the bacteria.
“What we’re going to do is look at stress response and virulence gene expression and compare three lineages to see if there are differences explaining why these lineages are linked differentially to human disease.”