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E. coli isn't new, but it is an ever-present danger

Question: Can you toll me something about the new bacteria called E. coli? I read about the recent outbreaks of these bacteria that were traced to meat served in fast-food restaurants. Is this a problem that I have to worry about? If so, how can I protect my family?

Answer: E. coli is not new. There are various bacteria called E. coli (Escherichia coli) _ the garden varieties of which have probably been contaminating food and water forever. Fortunately, these nasty microorganisms usually inflict only minor damage _ mild diarrhea _ and generally no treatment is necessary other than drinking plenty of water to avoid dehydration (although more severe and prolonged symptoms, requiring medication, do occur).

However, about 12 years ago scientists discovered a rare and more dangerous E. coli strain _ christened E. coli 0157:H7. Like its culprit cousins, it too lives in the intestines of mammals and is transmitted by way of under-cooked hamburger and roast beef (and possibly other meat, fish and poultry), raw milk, improperly processed cider, contaminated water and mayonnaise, and vegetables grown in cow manure.

A bout with this "new" germ is seldom mild, almost always miserable and sometimes deadly. The illness _ bloody diarrhea and severe cramps (that can be accompanied by vomiting, nausea and a low-grade fever) _ usually lasts four to 10 days, although children and the elderly can develop complications from the infection, such as kidney failure.

Fortunately, chances of getting sick from E. coli 0157:H7 are remote. Since 1982, when the Centers for Disease Control started keeping track of this bacteria strain, about 22,000 people have become ill and 22 people have died. These are relatively small numbers given the size of the U.S. population. Still, the possibility of infection exists.

To prevent E. coli, follow the standard procedures for avoiding most forms of food poisoning:

Don't eat rare meat or other under-cooked food. At restaurants, return it.

Quickly freeze or refrigerate all perishable foods after shopping.

Don't thaw food on the counter for more than two hours.

Refrigerate leftovers soon after a meal _ bacteria on cooked foods multiply to dangerously high levels when left more than two hours at room temperature.

Wash your cutting board with soap and water after each use for meat or poultry, and every so often douse it down with a mild solution of water and bleach.

Cook meat to an appropriate internal temperature _ 170 to 180 degrees for chicken and turkey; 160 degrees for veal, lamb and pork as well as ground beef; and 145 degrees for roasts and steaks.

Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating.

Drink only pasteurized milk.

Buy pasteurized cider or heat fresh cider to 160 degrees (a slow simmer where steam is starting to rise from the pan) before drinking it.

Write with questions to Dr. Patrick J. Bird, dean of the College of Health and Human Performance, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611.