Health Alert: Bacteria that survive inside produce

NATIONAL - Remember the classic experiment that puts celery in a mixture of water and food dye so that the celery absorbs the color? Could bacteria invade our food the same way? Some studies say yes, and that's a big problem.

Microbiologist Bruce Appelgate explains, "You can wash it off, if it's on the outside, but if you can imagine if it's cut up lettuce and it's been pulled inside, there's, you know, washing it off is a whole different ball game then."

Purdue researchers are studying 0157H7, the nasty new strain of e. Coli linked to last year's outbreaks involving leafy greens. Appelgate says, "Basically what we're trying to do is understand how that particular organism is surviving on the lettuce. Is it multiplying or growing, making more bacteria while it's in the lettuce?"

In order to follow the bacterium, researchers genetically engineer it to glow. Then, they inject it into lettuce leaves to see what happens. Appelgate talks about the disturbing results, "Not only are they being pulled up into the veins you would call it, the vascular tissue of these plants, once they are pulled up inside of there, they begin to become active."

The e. Coli allows researchers to test ways to kill the bacterium and decontaminate produce. Appelgate says, "It's a very quick way of testing because if the light goes away, it means the bacteria is dying and you don't have to do a lot of laborious laboratory techniques to figure out whether something's working or not."

So far, they're testing laser technology to detect bacteria and chlorine dioxide gas to kill it. For now at home, wash produce thoroughly, then refrigerate it until you're ready to eat it.

Appelgate says, "As soon as you take them out, set them on the counter, let them warm up to room temperature, that's when they become active."

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Posted by Chantelle Janelle