The E. Coli outbreak in Europe now appears to have been caused by bean sprouts. If the strain weren't so deadly (as of last night it has killed 22 people and sickened at least 2,100 including more than 600 in intensive care), it would be amusing.
But it is, so it's not.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, this strain of E. Coli (the "E" is short for Escherichia) has caused "520 patients to exhibit hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) - a type of kidney failure."
The CDC also reports on its webpage that:
"In the United States, four suspected cases of infections have been identified in persons who recently traveled to Hamburg, Germany, where they were likely exposed."
They report one case each in Massachusetts, Michigan, and Wisconsin, with the fourth case still under investigation.
In addition, given the huge footprint of U.S. Service Members in Germany, the Department Defense is tracking the outbreak. Two Service Members in Germany have exhibited some of the symptoms and are under observation.
The particular sprouts in question appear to have come from one organic farm in Germany. Before you stick your index finger in the air and proclaim "Ah HAH!" because of the organic business, it appears that the bacterium is most likely deposited on the leaves or stems of plants from run off containing manure from infected animals.
Remember the spinach E. Coli outbreak in 2006? It has been reported that its source was feral (wild) pigs whose manure washed downstream to a farm which grew the lettuce.
A lot of bugs live in soil. Anthrax was high on the hit parade about 10 years ago, as you might remember. In a 2006 article in Slate Magazine, writer Constance Casey looked at the way the root systems of plants take up nutrients from the soil:
Water and nutrients come in through the root hairs, threadlike, thin-walled vessels similar to our capillaries.
These hairs take up nitrates, potassium, and other substances in ion form. These are little atom groups. A one-celled bacterium, by contrast, is generally too big to be absorbed by roots. That's pretty crucial to the food chain, because soil is alive with bacteria; if the plants we eat took up the critters regularly through the roots, they'd be chock-full of pathogens and we'd be sick all the time.
In a New York Times piece published last night, reporters Rudy Dempsey and William Neuman wrote: