At least 14 people have died from the recent E. coli outbreak in Germany, and the blame for the outbreak is being placed on tainted cucumbers. The outbreak is one of the worst on record, but deadly infection from the bacterium due to infected produce is nothing new. So what can you do to prevent your family from becoming sick from Escherichia coli?
E. coli is a kind of bacteria that lives in the lower intestine of animals, and it gets into our food through infection in the field, improper handling on the farm or in processing, infection at the shipping or retail level, or in the home.
It can make its way onto food through manure fertilization, use of sewage water in irrigation, direct contamination by the feces of feral pigs or other animals in the field, and human feces under the fingernails of farm workers, food processors, or consumers in the home.
Consumers can't control the growing or the handling of the produce, but people can take steps to make the produce as safe as possible once it comes into the home. The solution is easy: Wash your produce in chlorinated water, like the tap water in most communities. The FDA cites a study that showed 92.4% of the pathogens on produce were removed simply by rinsing the produce in chlorinated tap water.
One might think that many of the infected in Germany--authorities say as many as 300 people were sickened in the E. coli outbreak--washed their cucumbers. The problem is that produce with creases or pockets in the skin, or a waxy coating, can trap the pathogen and stay infected during a tap-water rinse. Consumers are urged to scrub any produce that has been treated with wax or similar substances that were applied to increase the food's appearance or shelf life.
While cucumbers were the culprit in the recent outbreak in Europe, melons with uneven or grooved skins can hold fast to E. coli even when rinsed. The bacterium is transferred to the edible part of the melon by the knife blade. Therefore, experts advise scrubbing waxed produce and grooved produce such as cantaloupe and potatoes.
Immediately discarding the outer leaves of lettuce heads may offer some protection, as long as you rinse your hands before continuing with the rest of the leaves.
Even a banana can be an E. coli threat. While the skin acts as excellent protection for the inside fruit, if you touch the edible part after peeling the banana, any pathogen on the peel can make its way into your body.
Raspberries and other berries offer a difficult challenge because of their convoluted surface and delicate form. The best you can do is rinse them and let them drain in a colander. Sprays sold specifically to remove pathogens from produce have not been shown to be more effective than chlorinated tap water.