Clostridium difficile, a bacterium known as C. diff, causes serious infections that cause 14,000 US deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Moreover, there are about 500,000 cases of C. diff infection annually. Three to five percent of healthy adults carry toxic C. diff but have no symptoms of disease.
The elderly and individuals with compromised immune symptoms are most at risk of getting the infection.
A C. diff infection is usually associated with a stay in a hospital or other healthcare settings. The symptoms of the disease include frequent watery diarrhea, abdominal pain or tenderness and inflammation of the colon, or colitis. The bacterium releases toxins that can attack the lining of the intestines; severe infections can lead to intestinal perforation or sepsis.
The increase in the number of illnesses caused by the bacterium is causing researchers to suspect that contaminated foods may be contributing to the situation. Although no cases have yet to be specifically linked with food, about 20-27% of C. diff infections aren’t associated with healthcare settings.
Jeffrey LeJeune, microbiologist with OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, the outreach arm of OSU’s College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. He says, “It’s not clear where (the infections) come from. We want to encourage public health officials to look at food as a possibility.”
Rodriguez-Palacios is a colleague of and a collaborator with LeJeune, He’s a postdoctoral scholar at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and has conducted numerous studies on C.diff and its presence in food products, primarily ground meat.
He’s concluded from his studies that “C. diff is found throughout the environment, in water, rivers, soil, food, everywhere. People can pick it up from anywhere, but we are more exposed to food than to these other things.”
“It is widely spread in the environment, but we don’t put everything in our mouths,” added LeJeune.
The researchers found that C. diff is found in retail beef, veal, pork and poultry, seafood, fish and vegetables. Recent indications show food contamination occurring during processing after the slaughter of animals.
C. diff flourishes at temperatures between 77 and 113 degrees F. However, conventional cooking at recommended temperatures and times doesn’t kill the bacterium because it produces spores that permit it to survive under harsh conditions.
C. diff spores aren’t inactivated until they reach and are held at a temperature of 163-185 degrees F for 15 minutes, far longer than anyone cooks a hamburger.
“Not all pathogens are created equal,” LeJeune said. “C. diff is tougher than other pathogens in terms of its environmental survival. That’s probably why we find it all over.”
Tomorrow: Protecting ourselves from C. diff infection, at home and in the hospital
Source: OSU News from the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, November 13, 2012 Study published in Food Technology.