Yuck factor: Swiss study finds E. coli bacteria in ice cubes


More than a quarter of ice cubes used in Swiss bars and restaurants contain fecal bacteria such as E. coli, according to a nationwide study by the Swiss cantonal chemists association (VKCS).

ice.bearIn an analysis of ice cube samples collected from bars, restaurants and canteens around Switzerland last year, 26 percent fell short of legal health standards, said Sunday paper SonntagsBlick, which released the figure prior to the report’s official publication.

The presence of bacteria including pseudomonas, E. coli and enterococci is “a clear sign of unsanitary production of ice cubes,” Otmar Deflorin, president of the  cantonal chemists association and head of the Swiss federal laboratory in Bern, told SonntagsBlick.

The primary cause is a lack of hygiene in bars and restaurants, where ice machines may be badly cleaned and maintained, he said.

Reusable bags redux: wash them

The reusable-shopping-bags-are-full-of-bacteria stories are uh, being recycled, but at least the alarmist nature has subsided. Barrett Newkirk of the Desert Sun writes that while reusable shopping bags can contain bacteria (except not citing pathogens) that the risk reduction solution is pretty easy – wash them. Newkirk cites the only published microbiological-risks-in-bags study from Williams and colleagues (2011) and interviews co-author Ryan Sinclair. vector_skull_halloween_trick_or_treat_grocery_tote_bag-p1496283172805687032wl6f_325(3)(2)-1

I classify them as pretty dirty things, like the bottom of your shoes,” said Ryan Sinclair of the Loma Linda University School of Public Health. Sinclair recommended that the bags be treated like the dirtiest laundry and washed in hot water with a detergent and disinfectant. He said he puts his own bags in the washer with socks and underwear, and that even the polyurethane bags can be washed five or six times before they start to fall apart.

Putting the bags in the washing machine and dryer about once a week is a good strategy, Sinclair said. Washing with a spray cleaner and cloth isn’t effective, he said, because it tends to miss dirt deep in corners and creases.

A 2011 study from scientists at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University found only 3% of shoppers with multi-use bags said they regularly washed them. The same study found bacteria in 99% of bags tested; half carried coliform bacteria while 8% carried E. coli, an indicator of fecal contamination. 

The paper which Sinclair co-authored showed that generic E. coli can be floating around in bags, recoverable in 7 of the 84 bags in the study.

The next question is it likely to be transferred to any ready-to-eat foods, or somehow to food contact surfaces in the home?

Just because the bacteria might be there, doesn’t mean it can contaminate a ready-to-eat food. No one has presented data to support that. In a cross-contamination event there is a dilution effect when it comes to transfer and it needs some sort of matrix to facilitate the transfer. And while reporting coliform in bags sounds scary, the group of bacteria are naturally associated with plant material and are not often thought as major public health risks, or even good indicators of pathogen contamination on food or surfaces.

A separate study published in 2012 traced a norovirus outbreak among a girls’ soccer team from Oregon to a reusable bag stored in a hotel bathroom used by an ill team member.

Back when that paper was published I exchanged emails with the insightful and entertaining Bill Keene (who is missed), one of the folks who investigated that outbreak and coauthor of the paper cited, he confirmed that the type of bag was irrelevant: “This story had nothing to do with disposable bags, reusable bags, or anything similar. It is about how when norovirus-infected people vomit, they shower their surroundings with an invisible fog of viruses—viruses that can later infect people who have contact with those surroundings and their fomites. In this case these were was a reusable bag and its contents—sealed packages of Oreos, Sun Chips, and grapes— but it could just have easily been a disposable plastic bag, a paper bag, a cardboard box, the flush handle on the toilet, the sink, the floor, or the nearby countertops.”

Newkirk states that Sinclair is working on some new work to show pathogen movement throughout a grocery store.

The study, conducted at a central California grocery store in early 2013, involved spraying bags with a bacteria not harmful to humans but transported in a similar way to norovirus, a leading cause of gastrointestinal disease linked to more than 19 million illnesses each year in the United States.

I look forward to seeing the peer-reviewed output. We keep our reusable bags dry; wash them every couple of weeks and use one-use bags for raw meat.

Ikea pulls cakes after bacteria found

First there was horsemeat found in Swedish meatballs sold at Ikea.

Now, the Swedish furniture giant has pulled a batch of almond cakes from its restaurants in 23 countries after Chinese authorities said they contained coliform bacteria, normally present in fecal matter.

The Swedish-made cakes had failed tests “for containing an excessive level of coliform bacteria, according to the General Administration of Quality Supervision, ikeaInspection and Quarantine,” the Shanghai Daily website wrote.

Ikea said 1,800 Taarta Chokladkrokant cakes – described on its website as an almond cake with chocolate, butter cream and butterscotch – were destroyed in December after being intercepted by Chinese customs.

“These cakes never reached our stores,” said Ikea spokeswoman Ylva Magnusson.

Well water should be tested annually to reduce health risks to children

Private well water should be tested yearly, and in some cases more often, according to new guidance offered by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

The recommendations call for annual well testing, especially for nitrate and microorganisms such as coliform bacteria, which can indicate that sewage has contaminated the well. The recommendations point out circumstances when additional testing should occur, including testing when there is a new infant in the house or if the well is subjected to structural damage.

Walter J. Rogan, M.D., an epidemiologist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and lead author on the policy statement and technical report that appears in the June issue of Pediatrics, said,

"Children are especially vulnerable to waterborne illnesses that may come from contaminated wells."

Reference(s): Rogan WJ, Brady MT, the Committee on Environmental Health and the Committee on Infectious Diseases. June, 2009. Technical Report. "Drinking Water from Private Wells and Risks to Children." Pediatrics,123:6. DOI: 10.1542/peds2009-0751.

Committee on Environmental Health and Committee on Infectious Diseases. Policy Statement. "Drinking Water from Private Wells and Risks to Children." Pediatrics,123:6. DOI: 10.1542/peds2009-0751.

Are reusable bags really a food safety concern?

The Canadian Plastic Industry Association (likely feeling reduced sales due to the popularity of reusable cloth bags) says that reusable bags are a public health risk. In a press release yesterday the plastic dudes touted the results of a bag swabbing study conducted earlier this year. Cited as the first study of its kind in North America, the plastics industry swabbed a whopping 25 bags, with 4 controls looking for anything they could find.

Swab-testing of a scientifically-meaningful sample of both single-use and reusable grocery bags found unacceptably high levels of bacterial, yeast, mold and coliform counts in the reusable bags. The swab testing was conducted March 7-April 10th by two independent laboratories. The study found that 64% of the reusable bags were contaminated with some level of bacteria and close to 30% had elevated bacterial counts higher than the 500 CFU/mL considered safe for drinking water.

Um, yeah except that coliform isn’t an indicator of really anything in a shopping bag. It’s a great indicator of water quality, but not great for food (coliforms are all over the place, including on produce). And mean relatively nothing.

The lack of real data is probably why it was reported in CFU/ml (a water measurement — pretty hard to tell what a ml of a shopping bag represents). The most telling data was that no generic E. coli or Salmonella was found.

Not the best methodology design. Or reporting of results.

Not to be phased by the lack of data, Dr. Richard Summerbell, Director of Research at Toronto-based Sporometrics and former Chief of Medical Mycology for the Ontario Ministry of Health (1991-2000), who evaluated the study results said, "The main risk is food poisoning. But other significant risks include skin infections such as bacterial boils, allergic reactions, triggering of asthma attacks, and ear infections."

Wow. Maybe if you’re talking about yeast and molds? But when it comes to pathogenic microorganisms the data just isn’t there.

We use reusable bags all the time for our shopping and take a few precautions to maybe reduce any potential risks: we keep them dry; wash them every couple of weeks and use one-use bags for raw meat.