Much has been in the news recently regarding the risk of catching a killer strain of E.Coli bacteria through eating salad crops such as bean sprouts, lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. But what is E.coli and what can you do to stop yourself from catching it?

Escherichia coli is a commonly abbreviated E. coli and was named after German pediatrician and bacteriologist Theodor Escherich in 1885. It is a Gram-negative, rod-shaped bacterium that is commonly found in the lower intestine of warm-blooded organisms. While most E. coli strains are harmless, some can cause serious food poisoning in humans. The harmless strains are part of the normal flora of the gut, and can benefit their hosts by producing vitamin K2, and by preventing the establishment of pathogenic bacteria within the intestine.

E. coli bacteria are a major component of feces, and fecal-oral transmission is the major route through which pathogenic strains of E. coli cause disease. Cells are able to survive outside the body for a limited amount of time, which makes them ideal indicator organisms to test environmental samples for fecal contamination.

How do we get food poisoning through E.Coli?

The E. coli bacteria that is found in the guts of animals is transmitted to our food when faecal waste comes into contact with meat. Because of this transmission method, meat products can be made safe by thorough cooking.

Unfortunately, E. coli is normally on the surface of the meat and therefore items such as steaks are usually safe to eat as long as the outer surface of the meat has been cooked. With items such as hamburgers, where meat has been minced, it is important to ensure that the burger is well cooked throughout the hamburger patty, ensuring that no ground up surface meat containing the bacteria can cause infection.

Unfortunately there have been some E Coli outbreaks which have associated with contaminated vegetables and salads. In the case of salads, which are normally eaten raw, it is impossible to kill the E coli bacteria by just washing with water. The best way to prevent E coli infection in salads is to soak salad vegetables in a sterilising fluid solution (one that is normally used for sterilising babies’ bottles). Milton is one of the best know brands for producing sterilizing solutions, however generic brands can be found at supermarkets and pharmacies. Once you have made up your solution, soak your salad item for 15 – 20 mins (refer to the instructions on your packet) and then rinse. The sterilizing solution should ensure that any surface bacteria are killed, and there should be no unpleasant aftertaste.

There has also been some controversy over organic salad produce. Organic farmers often use animal waste fertilizer, as this is considered more natural for the environment. However, some would argue that animal waste increases the chance of vegetables being contaminated with E coli bacteria, and therefore extra care should be taken when preparing organic vegetables and salad.

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