Toni Lee, RN, is Director of Infection Control at Banner Estrella Medical Center.
Question: I keep hearing about E. coli in the news in regards to contaminated vegetables. Are we safe if we clean our vegetables before we eat them or should we avoid spinach and lettuce altogether until we hear that it is safe?
Answer: Escherichia coli, more commonly referred to as e. coli, is a microorganism that normally lives in our gut and intestines. There are different strains of E. coli, but one in particular, E. coli O157:H7, causes most of the serious infections in humans.
E. coli O157:H7 produces toxins that cause severe diarrhea and can also cause an illness called hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS. Young children and the elderly are most susceptible to developing complications from E. coli O157:H7 infections.
In the recent reported cases, the particular strain found on the spinach and lettuce is reportable to health authorities. Therefore, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) were able to quickly pinpoint the cause of the current outbreak and issue a national warning.
E. coli contamination certainly isn’t unique to fruits or vegetables. You may recall that many of the previous E. coli infections have been associated with uncooked or undercooked meat.
As for how to avoid ingesting the E. coli strain that has been reported in the news, I would not recommend eating raw spinach or lettuce at this point. Simply cleaning the vegetables does not necessarily rid them of the E. coli strain. What I would recommend, at this point, is:
- Do not eat raw spinach by itself or as part of blended salad mixes until the FDA gives the OK.
- Spinach that is well cooked or frozen is safe to eat. If you are frying or sautéing the spinach make sure that all of it gets well cooked.
- If you are going to cook your raw spinach, do not process uncooked spinach in the same place as other raw vegetables or food items.