13 sick, 9 hospitalized in Canadian E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to walnuts

Late last night, Canadian health types issued a media release saying there were people sick from E. coli O157:H7 in several provinces linked to walnuts.

I noted that was really crappy risk communication – not being clear about what was known in terms of sick people and what was not known — which is expected of government agencies like Health Canada, especially when they proclaimed a couple of days ago they were a founding member of some international Center of Excellence in Food Risk Communication (it’s a website and sucks).

About an hour ago (2:16 p.m. Eastern, April 4, 2011) the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) announced there have been 13 cases of E. coli O157:H7 in Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick (those are provinces in Canada). Nine individuals have been hospitalized and two cases developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).

The strivers for excellence in food risk communication note:

“You can help reduce your risk of becoming ill by following safe food handling precautions:
? Clean counters and cutting boards and wash your hands regularly.
? Read labels and follow cooking and storage instructions for all foods.
? Make sure to check the "best before" date on all foods.
? Use warm soapy water to clean knives, cutting boards, utensils, your hands and any surfaces that have come in contact with food, especially meat and fish.
? Refrigerate or freeze perishable food within two hours of cooking.
? Freeze or consume leftovers within four days of cooking.
? Always reheat leftovers until steaming hot before eating.
? Keep refrigerators clean and at a temperature below 4° C, or 40° F. Install a thermometer in your refrigerator to be sure.”

I have no idea how this applies to raw walnuts, like the ones I had on my salad for lunch (those yummy walnuts were from California, not Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Iran, the places from where the fingered distributor, Amira Enterprises Inc. of St. Laurent, QC, imports things like walnuts.

And rather than toss out the suspect walnuts, Canadian health types recommend “consumers who have raw shelled walnuts in their home can reduce the risk of E. coli infection by roasting the walnuts prior to eating them. Consumers should place the nuts on a cooking sheet and bake at 350°F for 10 minutes, turning the nuts over once after five minutes.”

This does not account for the risk of cross-contamination with a virulent pathogen. My microbiology friends look forward to testing out this advice. I wonder what it was based on?