New rules considered after E. coli outbreak in juice

WASHINGTON (AP) — Alarmed by another E. coli bacteria outbreak that killed a child and sickened dozens of others in Western states, the government is considering forcing all apple juices — and possibly other fruit juices — to be pasteurized.
Also under debate are measures such as chemically washing fresh produce or forcing manufacturers to adopt programs that prove foods stay pure from harvest to dinner table.
The deliberations come after at least 49 people, mostly children, were sickened from E. coli in trendy, unpasteurized fruit juices. One child died Friday in Denver.
Once thought a threat only in undercooked meat, the virulent E. coli O157 strain now has surfaced repeatedly in apple cider and even in lettuce.
But health experts weren’t alarmed until two weeks ago when Odwalla Inc., based in Half Moon Bay, Calif., recalled its gourmet juices that contained tainted apple juice. That outbreak showed that even large companies known for quality are vulnerable.
“The number of outbreaks are significant in the past year,” said John Vanderveen of the Food and Drug Administration. But “there’s no doubt this is a different problem this time.”
Just hours after the recall began, he called a special meeting to warn apple juice makers “to ratchet up their quality control” while the government decides the next step.
Meanwhile, Vanderveen is advising parents of young children and people with weak immune systems, who are most at risk from foodborne illnesses, to buy only pasteurized juices. Unpasteurized ones, a minority on the market, must be sold cold, so shoppers should check the label when buying any chilled juice, he added.
Many people say unpasteurized juices taste better. But pasteurization, a heating process, kills E. coli, while simply washing fruit with water doesn’t.
If the FDA mandates pasteurization, the rule could apply both to the upscale, all-natural juices sold in supermarkets and perhaps even to the cider farmers sell at tiny roadside stands.
Although the government is looking first at apple products, they’re not the only threat. Salmonella has poisoned Americans who ate alfalfa sprouts, cantaloupes, watermelon and unpasteurized orange juice. Guatemalan raspberries are the prime suspect in last summer’s outbreak of the parasite cyclospora.
At least four U.S. outbreaks of E. coli O157, a particularly dangerous strain discovered in 1982, were linked to raw lettuce in the past year. Last month, it sickened 10 people who drank apple cider in Connecticut.
While bacterial outbreaks are increasing, so is Americans’ consumption of all-natural foods — an industry growing about 25 percent a year.
People don’t understand that fresh or natural “doesn’t necessarily mean better for you,” said Dr. Mitchell Cohen, bacterial diseases chief at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One worry: Organic foods often are fertilized with cow manure even though E. coli flourishes in cattle.
When the Odwalla outbreak hit, the Clinton administration already was planning a broader initiative to better safeguard all foods. One step is expected to be an expansion of the nation’s fledgling early-warning system for foodborne risks, which now operates in just five states.
But the latest E. coli outbreak has the FDA considering what steps fresh food makers should take immediately. Options include experimental chemical washes that promise to purify produce, additives that might kill the bacteria or pasteurization.
“You’re going to have a tremendous outcry of individuals” if the FDA mandates pasteurization, warned Cornell University food scientist Bob Gravani. “The unique flavors will not be there, but that’s the price you pay for safety.”
The government also could require the natural food industry to adopt strict quality-control programs similar to ones now mandated for seafood and meat companies. These force firms to prevent contamination at every step of production, from harvesting the food to selling it.
The industry fears the government will move too fast — after all, nobody yet knows how Odwalla’s juices were tainted.
One of the largest natural juice producers, Odwalla passed FDA plant inspections and even had its own special quality-control program.