A Handful of E. Coli Health Precautions

Nutritionist Rovenia Brock discusses some common-sense practices to avoid being infected with the potentially fatal contaminant. Brock is the author of Dr. Ro's Ten Secrets to Livin' Healthy.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Earlier in the program we talked about dangers caused by food tainted with E. coli bacteria, and now NEWS & NOTES nutritionist Rovenia Brock discusses some common-sense practices to keep your family from being infected.

Dr. Ro joins us from our NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. Good to have you back on the program.

Dr. ROVENIA BROCK (Author, Dr. Ro's 10 Secrets to Living Healthy): Always a pleasure.

CHIDEYA: So, simply put, how do we protect ourselves?

Dr. BROCK: There are three basic ways. The first thing is that E. coli can be transferred from person to person. It can be transferred by food or contaminated water. So the first thing you want to do is, it's a very common-sense thing, wash your hands. Wash your hands before eating, certainly after using the bathroom. And for moms who change babies, make sure you wash your hands directly after. That's one thing.

The other thing is you want make sure that you wash produce, and not just spinach but all produce, thoroughly using lots of fresh water, clean water; you may want to use a vegetable wash and you certainly want to use a brush.

The other thing is to make sure that all cooked meat be cooked thoroughly such that the internal temperature is 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Ground meat and ground beef is notorious because of its surface area for being a hiding place for E. coli. But I would suggest that all meat be cooked thoroughly. And even as you're eating out make sure that you order your meat well, if not medium-well or if not well done.

CHIDEYA: So no more rare hamburgers, huh?

Dr. BROCK: No. No. No. We should say that there are some groups of people who are much more susceptible to this, to sickness and beyond. And those would be children under the age of 5, adults, senior citizens, older adults and anyone who has a weakened immune system.

CHIDEYA: Let me break down a couple of things you mentioned. One is a vegetable wash. What is that?

Dr. BROCK: There's a product on the market that is just a clean way or a safe way, I should say, of washing your vegetables and it's a little bit beyond water. The substance that they use in commercial vegetable washes are certainly safe to put on your food. It's a soap, so to speak, to clean your vegetables with. But if you don't have a vegetable wash, it's certainly okay to use plenty of clean, uncontaminated water and to use a vegetable brush of sorts.

The other thing too, Farai, that I've wanted to say was that you want to make sure that you do not what we call cross-contaminate your food. So if you are using a plate or cooking utensils or a surface like kitchen counter or a cutting board where you've worked with raw meat, you do not want to use that same surface or utensils to put like salads and vegetables that will not be cooked. You want to make sure that you don't use the same surface for cooked meat that you have used for raw meat.

CHIDEYA: And certainly there are other forms of contaminants like salmonella that's in chicken mainly that, you know, you wouldn't want to get on your vegetables. But about this whole vegetable brush thing, you can't use a brush on spinach, can you? Because it would just be like soup.

Dr. BROCK: No. Absolutely, you can't use a brush on spinach. But for those things, tubers or asparagus; for those things, those vegetables that are much more solid and not leafy, like in the case of spinach, you can use vegetable brushes - carrots, things like that.

CHIDEYA: How do you know that you might be sick from E. coli and what should you do if you suspect it?

Dr. BROCK: Well, there are many different strains of E. coli, but I think the one that's most harmful and the most virulent strain is E. coli 0157, and that's the one that's recently been in the news related to spinach. It causes bloody diarrhea and it will cure itself. It will go away in about 5 to 10 days. But I would say that if you recognize that you're having severe and intense abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and several BMs a day and you're losing lots of fluids, which will ultimately cause loss of electrolytes and dehydration and fatigue, you want to get to a doctor immediately.

There is another strain which is not quite as common, I would say, in this country, but for travelers, people who travel to developing countries frequently. It causes what's known as traveler's diarrhea; not as bad of a problem as we're talking about food contamination in the United States, but you want to be aware of it. It's called enterotoxigenic E. coli. And that is spread through contaminated food and water but usually seen in developing countries much more so than in this country.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, we're staying on top of how many cases emerge from this. And we appreciate your help, Dr. Ro.

Dr. BROCK: It's always a pleasure.

CHIDEYA: NEWS & NOTES nutritionist Rovenia Brock is the author of Dr. Ro's 10 Secrets to Living Healthy.

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