An outbreak of a serious strain of E. coli is spreading throughout Germany. The deadly bacteria are responsible for killing 16 people and causing many hundreds to become sick. This latest health news is alarming indeed. Many in North America may remember the E. coli outbreak in Walkerton, Ontario, Canada, which caused six deaths and serious illness in many more in May of 2000.
Although most strains of E. coli are relatively harmless, a strain called enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) is particularly serious, because it can be fatal. EHEC is typically transmitted through contaminated foods such as undercooked or raw meat. EHEC symptoms include stomach cramping and diarrhea and eventually hemorrhagic colitis, or bloody diarrhea. If untreated, EHEC can lead to anemia and kidney failure.
This latest deadly outbreak, which originated in northern Germany, is believed to be caused by contaminated vegetables, though the exact source of the outbreak is still undetermined. For now, medical officials are advising everyone to stay away from raw cucumbers, leaf lettuce, or tomatoes.
In order to safeguard your nutritional health, there are a few precautions you can take. While it is impossible to predict or know if a certain food group is likely to contain E. coli (the tragedy of Walkerton was that E. coli was found in the drinking water supply), you can reduce your risks by taking an interest in the food you purchase and consume.
— Know where food comes from: Research local farmers. Head to a farmer’s market for local, fresh produce, meats and cheese and you can actually have a conversation with farmers. Ask them about their operation. For imported items, do some research and find out where they are from.
— Keep the kitchen clean: Wash plates, utensils, pots and pans in soapy hot water so bacteria won’t survive. Do the same for counter tops, cutting boards, and the fridge. Toss sponges, rags, and dishcloths in the washing machine each week. Consider sanitizing the kitchen every so often. Mix a teaspoon of bleach with a quart of water and scrub your cutting boards, counters, stove, and kitchen sink.
— Think perishable: At the supermarket, leave perishable foods until last, so they don’t go bad. Get your cans, bottles, and boxes of food first. Make grocery shopping the last item on your to-do list before you go home.
— Pack properly: In the supermarket, make sure produce is kept separate from meat, seafood, and poultry. Don’t forget you can use a cooler (with ice) for frozen or perishable items for the trip home.
— Inspect food: Eggs should come un-cracked. Veggies and fruit should be un-bruised. Lids shouldn’t be loose. Jars should lack dents and cracks. Meat, fish, and salads at your supermarket should be sold in a clean area.
— Practice meat safety: Thaw meat in the fridge. Cook poultry and meat thoroughly. Consider a meat thermometer to gauge temperature.
— Wash produce well: Wash fruits and veggies properly to remove dirt and potential lingering pesticides.
— One last bit of health advice: Wash your hands frequently.