E. Sakazakii has contaminated formula milk in several unnamed countries across the world. The research, carried out by Chantal Kandhai from Wageningen University, Netherlands, was funded by dairy company Nestle. The researchers found that eight of nine food factories and a third of households contained the bacterium.
According to the Center for Disease control and Prevention in Atlanta, Enterobacter sakazakii a rare cause of invasive diseases. World wide a total of 60 cases have been reported.
Until recently little was known about how widespread the bacterium was. Although it is mainly dangerous for those with weak immune systems E. sakazakii can cause meningitis, bloodstream infections or a deadly intestinal in inflammation in newborns or people with weakened immune systems. However, in the cases where meningitis does occur death are common in 33-80 per cent of the cases.
In January of last year, Mead Johnson Nutritionals, a major formula maker had to recall 3,030 cans of specialty formula used for premature babies because they were contaminated with the potentially life threatening bacteria.
Kandhai and his colleagues believe that the results indicate people need to be more aware of the widespread nature of the micro-organism. They say that this needs to be taken into account when designing preventive control measures.
In Canada where concerns for the contamination issue has been steadily developing, health officials believe that the industry must become more aware of the problem:
"Currently industry efforts to reduce the occurrence of E. sakazakii have focused on improving hygiene practices, coupled with environmental monitoring and end-product testing for the organism," Jeffrey Farber from Health Canada stated.
"Since powdered infant formula is not sterile and there is the potential risk of contamination during preparation, there is a need for care when preparing and handling reconstituted powdered infant formulas. Healthcare professionals should follow recommendations provided by public-health officials and organisations and should be alert to possible modifications." He added.
Relatively few cases of E. sakazakii contamination have been reported worldwide, but mortality levels are high for babies who come into contact with the bacterium. Health officials are concerned that without action the organism that in years to come it could pose a much more serious problem. All recorded cases have involved babies that are less than five weeks old. Prematurely born babies are thought to be at the highest risk from the bacteria.
Nestle, the mass baby milk producer, is particularly sensitive to the dangers that are associated with contamination of formula milk. The company has faced a number of boycotts and petitions following accusations that it had produced formula milk for babies in the third world which resulted in death.
The safety of formula milk is an emotive subject. Industry observers are urging producers need to be more aware of the risks involved.