The devastating outbreak of E. coli poisoning in Germany - now traced to bean sprouts - is particularly frightening because the deadly new strain is extremely hard to treat.
So far 31 have died and more than 700 are in intensive care, including three Americans who had recently visited Germany.
The virulent new form of E. coli afflicts the kidneys, blood and central nervous system, resulting in a devastating, potentially life-threatening illness with a high probability of lifelong complications.
Even though investigators have identified sprouts as the culprit, they warned that they still have not found direct evidence of how or where the sprouts became infected.
In the U.S., raw sprouts, including alfalfa sprouts, have been involved in many outbreaks of foodborne illness.
In a warning letter just last December about avoiding alfalfa sprouts because of salmonella contamination, the Food and Drug Administration noted that since 1996, there have been at least 30 reported outbreaks of food poisoning from different types of raw and lightly cooked sprouts due to either salmonella or E. coli.
Although at least one expert told the Washington Post that the type of outbreak in Germany was unlikely to spread here, there is still concern about the food safety risks of eating fresh vegetables, especially because U.S. farmers and food processors are not required to test for this new strain.
To be clear, it's not that raw vegetables are more likely to contain E. coli, a large group of bacteria normally found in the gastrointestinal tract of humans and animals. It's that those vegetables are eaten uncooked, so the bacteria hasn't been killed by high heat. E. coli has previously sickened people who ate undercooked beef for the same reason.
So what can you do (other than avoid raw sprouts)?
Marion Nestle, a professor of food science at New York University, recently tackled the subject of E. coli and what we can do to protect ourselves from getting sick.
Here are some answers she provided on her blog about food-related issues called Food Politics:
Are E. coli contaminants killed in high heat cooking?
Yes. Heat kills bacteria, and quickly. If you are worried about spinach or any other vegetables, drop it in rapidly boiling water for a minute or less.
What is the best way to protect yourself from foodborne illness, especially from fresh produce?
The only way to be 100 percent sure is to cook food and eat it piping hot. Short of that, always wash your veggies. Always. Use tap water because it is chlorinated and will kill most pathogens. But - and it is a big but - these toxic forms of E. coli are capable of making sticky biofilms that cannot be easily washed off. Cooking is the only way to be absolutely certain.
This toxic strain of E. coli seems to be affecting women more than men. Why is that?
What seems to be happening is that women are more likely to have eaten salads than men. Epidemiologists say that if women are more affected than men in an outbreak, the culprit is likely to be something in a salad. If men are more affected, the source is likely to be meat.
For older Americans and those who have underlying health conditions or a compromised immune system, the key to avoiding foodborne illnesses is to handle food safely.
Cook food to the proper temperature and when you've finished eating, don't let cooked food sit out for more than two hours. Store leftovers in the refrigerator or freezer.
Photo credit: Therealbrute via flickr.com