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The current outbreak of toxigenic E. coli infections linked to unpasteurized fresh juices raises important questions for the rapidly growing natural foods industry.

The issue has broader implications. Many "organic" fruits and vegetables are fertilized with cow manure - a primary source of E. coli 0157 infections.While the recent E. coli outbreak focuses attention on the Odwalla Juice Co., this is an industrywide problem among manufacturers of raw juice products and, for that matter, organically grown fruits and vegetables.

Unfortunately, as is frequently the case in this field, the debate has been framed as adversarial and philosophical rather than investigative and scientific. Proponents of "live" juices accept the hype that anything that is "natural" ishealthier than anything "processed." Apparently the E. coli organism feels the same way.

Outbreaks of E. coli infection were reported in cold-pressed apple cider in Connecticut last month. After a similar incident in Massachusetts in 1991, warning articles appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Last summer, 9,400 people were sickened in Japan in one major outbreak of food poisoning traced to this bacteria.

Is it possible that "raw foods" faddists are forgetting why the discovery of fire marked the beginning of civilization?

A virulent strain of E. coli 0157:H7 was first recognized as a human pathogen in 1982. Producers of raw juices based their apparently good-faith belief in the safety of unpasteurized apple juice on early impressions that its relative acidity created an inhospitable environment for the organism.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that E. coli 0157, like many organisms competing with us for tasty organic food (which from their point of view includes our bodies), has become increasingly resistant to formerly effective sanitation measures.

So the issue is not whether Odwalla's executives should have known, it is what they will do now that they do know.

Just as the organic-labeled "AltaDena Dairies" unpasteurized products had to deal with salmonella outbreaks a few years back, producers of unpasteurized juices need to ask themselves: Do the presumed health benefits of "fresh" juices outweigh the risks of dead babies?

Odwalla's announcement last week that unpasteurized apple juice should be regarded as unsafe is a laudable step for the company, but one that requires substantial follow-up to be consistent and to meet the public health goal of a truly safe food supply relative to raw juice products.

Still uncertain is whether Odwalla and its competitors will begin to pasteurize the numerous juice products - other than plain apple juice - that remain in their lines. After all, who says bacteria eat only apples?

Unpasteurized orange juice is now Odwalla's No. 1 seller. I don't mean to mix apples and oranges here, but inaction after the 1991 outbreak of E. coli in cold-pressed Massachusetts apple cider is the reason Odwalla is in deep organic cow manure now.

As the largest producer of fresh, unpasteurized juices, Odwalla can take the lead in protecting their consumers. But first the producers of raw juice must re-examine their corporate premise that raw juice is, all things considered, a healthier product. In so doing, I would suggest they take a survival tip that was self-evident to our primitive ancestors: Try to eat your food before it eats you.