Protect Yourself from E. Coli

In the wake of this past summer's E. coli-contaminated spinach scare and now a new problem at certain Taco Bell restaurants, many consumers have become nervous about fresh produce in general. Yes, it's very good for us, but how do we know if it's safe or not? What can we do to protect ourselves and our families?

The truth is that the food supply is very safe, and these outbreaks are relatively uncommon. Still, there are many simple steps we can -- and should -- consistently take as consumers to ensure food safety. For advice, I turned to Ronald H. Schmidt, PhD, a food science professor at the University of Florida and author of the Food Safety Handbook (Wiley). He shared a number of helpful tips with me...


1) Choose fresh fruits and veggies that are not bruised or damaged. The bruises provide an environment that allows bacteria to grow.

2) When buying produce such as packaged salads or fresh-cut fruit cups, make certain they are refrigerated or surrounded by ice.

3) Ask your grocer to bag fresh produce separately from meat, poultry or seafood to avoid contamination of bacteria on the outside of the packaging.


1) Store fresh fruits and vegetables that need refrigeration (such as melons, berries, spinach, lettuce, etc.) in a clean, cold refrigerator.

2) Refrigerate pre-cut or peeled produce within two hours of purchase.

3) Always store raw foods separately from cooked foods. Don't place cooked food on plates that held raw meat, poultry or seafood.

4) Wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap before and after handling any fresh or raw food product, including produce.

5) Cut away damaged or bruised areas on fresh fruits and vegetables before preparing or eating. When in doubt, throw it out.

6) Wash all produce under cold, running water. Although some precut produce is pre-washed (it should say so on the package), Dr. Schmidt still advises consumers to give it a quick rinse in the colander. Even if you plan to peel produce before eating, it is important to wash it first. Surprisingly, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not recommend washing fruits and vegetables with soap or detergent or using a commercial produce wash.

7) Scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers, with a produce brush. Dr. Schmidt cautions that the brush itself should be properly washed and sanitized, something which is often forgotten. This can be done by washing it in the dish washer.

8) To further reduce the chance of bacterial contamination, dry produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel.

9) Use separate cutting boards for meat, seafood, poultry and produce. Wash cutting boards, utensils, dishes and counter surfaces with hot water and soap after contact with raw meat, poultry or seafood.

10) Don't leave perishable, prepared or leftover foods at room temperature for more than two hours (or more than one hour on a hot summer day -- 90° F and over).

11) Cook foods to a safe temperature. Most harmful organisms are killed at temperatures between 145° F and 165° F, depending on whether you are cooking meat, seafood, poultry or with eggs.

12) Defrost food safely. Thaw tightly wrapped (so it won't drip on other foods items) meat, poultry or seafood in the refrigerator on the lowest shelf (again, to prevent dripping). You can also thaw frozen food in the microwave on the "Defrost" setting or immerse it in cold water and change the water every 30 minutes. Do not defrost or marinate food on a kitchen counter.

13) If you are in a high-risk category (elderly, children, pregnant women, immunocompromised, etc.), avoid foods such as raw or undercooked seafood, raw eggs (always avoid raw eggs as they could contain salmonella bacteria, which is destroyed by brief heat exposure) or undercooked meat or poultry, raw sprouts, unpasteurized milk or juices and soft cheeses.

From Bottom Line’s Daily Health News - January 4, 2007