Just as summer started in late June, officials from Niagara, LLC initiated a large recall of their bottled water due to evidence of E. coli at the company’s spring water source. This was cause for concern for many people, including parents, as summer is when bottled water is a regular go-to and most in demand, and of course because E. coli has earned a (rightfully) bad reputation.
It may make your skin crawl to think about it, but on and in just about every living thing, there’s a whole host of naturally occurring microbes. This includes humans. That’s right, naturally occurring microbes have taken up residence in your skin and gut and you need them to live.
Eschericia coli or more simply E. coli is a naturally occurring and very important microbial resident in the digestive tracts of cattle, ruminants (sheep, goats and deer), mammals and birds. People often think that E. coli is a single type of bacteria, but in fact it’s a large and diverse group of microbes.
In animals, E. coli is classified as a commensal microbe, which means that the bacteria lives within these animals without causing disease and helps the animal’s digestive tract extract important nutrients from food. These bacteria, like the ones that live in our guts, eventually they die and are shed when the animal defecates (see: poops).
So, if E. coli is a naturally occurring bacteria why is it a problem when it gets into the human food supply?
In 1982, a new subtype of E. coli was discovered in cattle that were very distinct from the standard E.coli shed by animals for the benefit of their health. This new subtype named 0157:H7 still lived in the animal’s gut and was shed through the same method (see: poop). In 1993 the new subtype was identified as the cause of a large outbreak of an illness that caused hemorrhagic diarrhea, kidney failure and even death. The common thread among all of the victims were that they’d consumed undercooked beef from a large fast food restaurant.
So if E. coli 0157:H7 lives in the guts of animals, how did it get into hamburger meat in 1993 and how did it get into the Niagara, LLC bottled water supply?
In 1993 the outbreak was traced to meat processing plants that lacked protocols to ensure that bacteria from the animal’s gut didn’t contaminate the meat used for human consumption. In terms of the issue with Niagara, LLC it comes down to how we handle poop: our own and that of animals.
Humans have built intricate sewage systems that handle our waste en mass, but the same cannot be said for animals such as cattle. During periods of heavy precipitation or snowfalls, E. coli can potentially be washed into bodies of water used for swimming and drinking. Another potential source for E. coli are from raising cattle. Human farming practices such as irrigation can carry animal waste from fields into close contact with crops and potentially into bodies of water used by humans.
E. coli infections with the serotype 0157:H7 are the most common cause of disease via the production of a shiga toxin. The toxin and the resulting disease can infect almost anyone but the very young and the elderly are most at risk. The primary symptoms are abdominal cramps, vomiting and bloody diarrhea. These populations can develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which can lead to kidney failure and death.
Niagara LLC acted very responsibly after learning that the potential for infection was present and began the recall. Their products reach a very wide customer base in multiple states through a number of retail outlets. Prevention is typically the best method of reducing chances of infection and these preventative methods are usually very simple.
- Wash your hands after going to the bathroom, prior to and after preparing food and after changing diapers.
- Avoid swallowing water when swimming in lakes, rivers and kiddie pools.
- Properly handle and cook meats.
- Do not consume raw milk or unpasteurized juices.
- If you suspect that you or your child is sick, consult with your health care provider immediately.
These outbreaks do not occur as often but when they do, the effects have a major impact on the population at large. As consumers, we have to be very prudent in the choices we make and using the prevention methods at hand to keep our families safe. – Edited by Leslie Waghorn