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How the emerging super-strain of E. coli might invade the city

There’s no shortage of things to fear these days. Earthquakes. Foreclosure. Ann Coulter. Cancer. Zombies. I could go on. But it turns out there are scarier things than brain-munching wraiths (Coulter). Things like ... sprouts.

That’s what scientists are blaming for the recent E. coli outbreak in Europe, where public health officials are reporting the related deaths of more than 30 people and the severe illness of more than 3,000 others—so far.

Crises caused by food-borne illness are familiar in the U.S., where such things as salmonella-spiked peanut butter and E. coli-tainted produce have been a problem in recent years. In response, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, which President Obama signed into law early this year. While it enables unprecedented FDA regulation of edible goods both domestic and imported, it can’t stop nature.

New research published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases indicates an emerging strain of E. coli called ST131 needs just one more resistance gene in order to be impervious to virtually all treatment methods, leaving our immune systems to fend for themselves. Even against lesser strains, you’re lucky if you get off with stomach cramps and a few days in the bathroom, because E. coli can be fatal.

No one wants to be killed by a baked potato topping, let alone the juicy steak next to the potato. Beef can carry E. coli due to the filthy conditions most cows live in, prompting industrial farms to administer heavy antibiotics. But the exposure microorganisms are getting to the drugs is making them stronger. How’s that for irony?

Even though the bacterial strains typically coming to the states via tourism are more in the neighborhood of staph and pneumonia, who’s to say the fancy beef cuts flown in to Las Vegas restaurants won’t eventually bring super-E. coli with them? For all of us who prefer medium rare, these are dark times. And now, not even the vegetables are safe.

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Erin Ryan

Erin got her first newspaper job in 2002 thanks to a campfire story about Bigfoot. In her award-winning work for ...

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