E. coli and its Connotations

Earlier this semester, our class had a Skype conversation with Professor Ben Chapman after we listened to a podcast called “Food Safety Talk 163: Grown on Chia Pets” by him and Don Schaffner. Chapman and Schaffner spoke about food safety in their podcast, and they discussed their research regarding it. In our Skype conversation, Chapman went into further detail about an event that occurred during one of his research studies on food safety. There was an incident where during a deception study, one of his research participants became highly upset when they discovered they were not disclosed the full truth about the experiment. The study involved a biological marker on raw chicken, and in this case, it was nonpathogenic E. coli. The experiment was done as a deception study in order to obtain accurate, unbiased data regarding whether or not people wash their chicken before cooking it. The biological marker was utilized to see the projected spread of bacteria on chicken when people are preparing it. The nonpathogenic E. coli was mentioned in the consent form given to participants in the study, and it was referred to as “biological tracer organism” (Chapman and Schaffner, 2018). The participant was unhappy to discover later on that this biological tracer organism was E. coli.  They felt as though they were lied to about what the study entailed, and believed to have been put at risk of contracting something harmful.

I personally could understand why someone would get upset or feel scared when finding out they had been exposed to E. coli. The bacteria E. coli is normally presented to people as harmful. This is true, but only to an extent. There are different strains of E. coli, and some are indeed, safe and nonpathogenic. I myself have done many experiments with E. coli in biology labs, therefore I personally wouldn’t even think twice about being at risk if I was told I came into contact with E. coli. However, I fully understand why someone without the same experiences as me with this bacterium would be scared upon finding out they were exposed to it. This whole situation told to us by Chapman really made me realize how important it is for consent forms to present information as clearly and thoroughly as possible. It also made me think, was I ever presented with full disclosure of the risks behind the E. coli that I did experiments with?

As I thought back to the times where I worked with E. coli, I realized that I was in fact not thoroughly told what risks working with the bacteria posed. I also thought about how I performed experiments with E. coli even back in high school, where one might think a description of the bacteria we were using would be sent home to parents to ensure them that it was safe. Our parents were never notified, and no consent forms or descriptions of the E. coli strain we were using was ever presented to us. I was told the bacteria wasn’t harmful, but I wasn’t given any proof, nor was there any elaboration. Upon thinking back to this situation, I can understand even more as to why someone who may not have a background in science as I do would be concerned when they hear they came into contact with E. coli. Chapman stated that he understood the participant’s concerns as well, and that is why he strove to make changes in the wording and explanation in the consent form to prevent another situation like this from happening again in the future (Chapman and Schaffner, 2018).

Overall, learning about this research situation and the misunderstanding of E. coli made me notice that I myself went through a similar event, but I had a different reaction. I realized that the difference in my reaction to that of Chapman’s research participant is that our backgrounds with the terminology differed. It made me understand just how important the wording and explanation of the terminology used when presenting someone with a description of what they are going to experience is. I may have been presented with a lack of information just as the research participant was, but luckily, I had a better experience due to my understanding of E. coli. This pushes me to never assume what others may already know or not know, and that I will always be sure to fully explain everything I present to someone if I am to do research myself one day.

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