The E. coli outbreak that has killed at least 22 people across Germany shows that even fresh produce carries some risk and requires proper handling to ensure eating healthy foods doesn’t make you sick.

E. coliMost varieties of Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria that flourish in the intestines of people and animals are harmless. Some may cause mild diarrhea. The strain identified in the German outbreak — STEC O104:H4, if you really want to know – is particularly virulent and generates a toxin that causes a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome.

E. coli typically makes its way into your intestines by hitching a ride on undercooked ground beef or raw vegetables irrigated with contaminated water. The list of suspected sources in the most recent outbreak in Germany includes bean sprouts.

E. coli bacteria also travel from person to person, especially when those infected don't wash their hands.

E. coli symptoms

The symptoms of an E. coli infection typically begin three or four days after eating the contaminated food. The most common symptom is diarrhea that is sudden, severe, and sometimes bloody. Other symptoms include abdominal cramping and pain, vomiting and fever.

Healthy adults will usually recover within a few days without treatment. But children, the elderly and those with immune and those with weakened immune systems should see a doctor. While no treatments cure the infection, steps can be taken to prevent dehydration.

Washing handsAvoiding E. coli

You can reduce your risk of illness from a nasty strain of E. coli by avoiding unpasteurized milk, juice and cider and undercooked burgers. Hamburgers should be well-done – at least 160 F at the center of the burger. If the center is pink, slap it back on the grill. And keep in mind that one out of every four hamburgers turns brown in the middle before reaching a safe internal temperature, according to recent USDA research.

You don’t want to serve leafy greens well done, but you do want to wash them. Rinse raw produce – especially spinach and lettuce – to reduce the amount of bacteria clinging to dirt particles.

Also wash utensils, countertops and cutting boards before and after they come into contact with fresh produce or raw meat. Good hand washing habits will also help prevent the spread of E. coli. Make sure your children carefully wash their hands after visiting a petting zoo.

Photo: Y_tambe/Wikimedia Commons; JAR (off for a while)/Flickr