November 4, 1996 in Nation/World

Outbreak May Prompt Juice Review Health Officials Considering Pasteurization Of Juices

New York Times

An outbreak of E. coli bacterial poisoning thought to be caused by a health food fruit juice sold in seven Western states has prompted some federal and state health officials to call for a review of whether pasteurization should be required for all widely distributed juices.

As merchants pulled juices made by Odwalla Inc. from their shelves last week, health officials and food scientists across the West pondered how to prevent such outbreaks. Some health officials suggested stricter inspection requirements. Others said juice should undergo the same scrutiny as milk, which since 1987 has been required by the federal government to be pasteurized when transported between states.

“We’re considering all alternatives to protect the public’s health and pasteurization is one of them,” said Fred Shank, with the Federal Food and Drug Administration.

Until now, federal regulators had not investigated pasteurizing juices because there had been no evidence of wide-spread contamination, said Susan Hutchcroft, a spokeswoman for the agency in Seattle.

About 65 cases of illness linked to E. coli, none fatal, have been reported in Washington and other Western states and British Columbia.

Health experts have viewed the outbreak as relatively small. But the virulent strain, E. coli 0157:H7, is the same one that in 1993 caused three children to die and more than 600 others to fall ill in the Pacific Northwest from eating infected hamburgers at Jack in the Box restaurants.

In the current oubreak, state health officials said they focused on Odwalla, which is based in Half Moon Bay, Calif., after reviewing the victims’ dietary histories and using genetic “fingerprinting” of the bacteria. They traced the outbreak to a batch of unpasteurized apple juice that the company used in many of its fresh mixed fruit beverages.

In all, health officials in Washington state traced 10 of 17 E. coli cases to Odwalla drinks containing apple juice. In Colorado, 13 E. coli cases were traceable to Odwalla products, while California attributed four cases to the juices. All of the victims drank the Odwalla juices between Oct. 11 and 21, health officials said. Other cases are being investigated in British Columbia and Texas. Nevada and New Mexico, the only other states where Odwalla juice is distributed, have had no confirmed cases.

At least three children have been hospitalized with hemolytic uremic syndrome, an illness that can lead to kidney and heart failure. Children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable.

E. coli can appear in any unpasteurized or undercooked foods under the right conditions, health officials said. It generally originates in the intestines of cows, sheep and birds and can spread to people when fruit comes into contact with manure. But the pathogens are eliminated by cleaning and pasteurization, in which heat is used to kill microorganisms. Pasteurization is the best way to insure that bacteria is killed, said Dr. John Kobayashi, a senior epidemiologist with the Washington State Health Department.

Paul Cieslak, a communicable disease expert with the Oregon Health Division said: “We pasteurize milk, but juice is a new issue that merits investigation. We don’t want to hyperregulate everything, but we don’t know whether the E. coli risk in juice is 1 in 1,000 or 1 in 1 million.”

Officials at Odwalla say it has sophisticated sanitary and processing codes to deal with contaminants. The fruit is hand culled and cleaned with phosphoric acid before being processed for juice, said Sydney Fisher, an Odwalla spokesman. The company is looking into the origin of the apples and its procedures, she said.

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