E.coli has been found in cucumbers in Europe, resulting in 16 fatalities and over 400 reported illnesses in Germany alone. That’s a frighteningly high number, especially for an illness that’s caused by bacteria that isn’t naturally found in fruit and veg at all. As a vegetarian, I usually feel safe from such illnesses — which are usually caused by contaminated meat, fish, or dairy — but this tragic outbreak proves that no one is entirely immune. So how can we protect ourselves?
There are conflicting reports on how the cucumbers, which were imported from Spain, contracted the bacteria. But as a precaution, several European countries have banned the import of Spanish produce, a move which the Spanish government decries as unjust. But that doesn’t protect the produce that has already been imported, and sitting in the grocery just waiting to be plucked by unsuspecting families, potentially carrying the lethal bacteria.
The most common cause of E.coli cross-contamination is ground water. If a farm is located near a slaughterhouse, the E.coli bacteria in animal feces can infect the ground water, which can easily run off onto nearby soil and farms. However, a less common form of contamination can occur when fruit and veg are in transit. Food that is imported across borders is manhandled by numerous people, and depending on the cleanliness of their hands and personal hygiene, the spreading of E.coli has been known to occur this way as well.
I have always been a big fan of “eating locally,” which means eating food that has been grown in your own city. By doing so, the carbon footprint caused by the import/export of produce is drastically reduced. In the case of E.coli, if the contamination was caused in transit as the Spanish government insists, eating locally could also protect buyers from becoming ill. However, if you live in the Arctic tundra where nothing grows, or you don’t have a garden out back to plant your own seeds, there are precautionary measures you can take to protect yourselves.
The Produce Marketing Association recommends the following:
When at the grocery store, use your common sense. Look for fresh-looking fruits and vegetables (avoid if bruised shriveled, moldy, or slimy). Don’t buy anything that smells bad. Don’t buy packaged vegetables that look slimy. Keep meats separate from produce.
When at home, handle fresh fruits and vegetables carefully. Put produce away promptly, and throw away produce you have kept too long. Wash all fruits and vegetables in clean drinking water before eating. Store prepared fruit salads and other cut produce in the refrigerator until just before serving. Discard cut produce if it has been out of the refrigerator for four hours or more.
(Photo: Getty Images, Reuters)