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As of Saturday more than 2,200 people in Europe have become ill after contracting E.coli; 22 have died. Scary stuff. For those who are not familiar with the bug: E.coli is a bacteria that gets into the system via contaminated food. Once inside, it produces toxins that make its host sick. Usually symptoms include diarrhea, which can be watery or bloody at times and abdominal cramps, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Contamination occurs in a number of ways. For instance, if someone preparing a hot dog doesn’t wash their hands after going to the bathroom or someone picking food in a field decides to pop a squat and drop a deuce among the veggies rather than making a trek to an outhouse or Port-a-Potty someone you can catch their bug. (Sounds gross, but for those workers who are paid for what they pick a 10-minute poop break means lost cash.) If meat is the source, the E.coli may come directly from the feces of the animal in question. Slaughterhouses are dirty, nasty places, and if an animal poops itself as it’s being electrocuted and that feces gets on the carcass….well, you get the picture. Contamination also happens if the cow’s intestines (filled with E.coli) make it into the ground beef mixture.

Meat that is contaminated can be rendered safe by cooking it thoroughly — bringing its internal temperature up to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit. You can also mitigate risk by washing and peeling riskier vegetables such as sprouts and spinach, and cooking them as well. And it should go without saying (but I’ll say it) that everyone should wash their hands thoroughly before handling any type of food or eating it.

To date, researchers haven’t figured out where the latest outbreak of E.coli is coming from. They’ve been testing a variety of vegetables including sprouts and cucumbers, but nothing has come back positive yet. As a result, officials are warning people, asking them to avoid eating leafy vegetables and raw tomatoes. For us here in the States, this should be a wakeup call about the way our food is produced. Meat shouldn’t be factory farmed. Vegetables should be picked by people who are allowed to take bio breaks. Me? I’ll just stick with what I’m doing: Buying fresh, locally-sourced meat and vegetables, most of which is organic. I’ll also keep reminding people that if they are sick, they should take extra care with handwashing for at least two weeks after their infection. People don’t realize or don’t know that most stomach bugs take several weeks to leave the digestive system even when there are no symptoms present. You can pass along a stomach bug even if you or your child hasn’t thrown up or had diarrhea for a week or two.

The good news is that the large majority of people who do contract E.coli tend to get better. Still, my heart goes out to the families of those 22 people who died. It’s so sad that they died doing something that should carry no risk.

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