E. coli is a bacteria which commonly causes illness and sometimes death. Every summer there are deaths associated with undercooked meat and contaminated vegetables. In the season of barbeques and picnics we backyard chefs must be especially careful.

E. coli, what do you know? T or F?

1. Most E. coli infections are traced to poor food handling at restaurants.

2. E. coli normally lives in intestines of humans and animals.

3. Most strains of E. coli are harmless.

E. coli, short for Escherichia coli, has many strains, like different people in the same family. Some are potentially more harmful than others (just like people). E. coli is normally found in the intestines of humans and animals, including cows and pigs, which we eat with enthusiasm. At slaughter, contamination of meat from intestinal contents often occurs.

Many well-known restaurant chains, including White Castle, have served hamburgers tainted with E. coli. However, most food-borne illness can be traced to poor food-handling at home. Undercooked or unpasteurized foods are usually the culprits. Not so long ago, restaurants would ask how you wanted your burger cooked, rare, medium, well-done and everything in between. Most do not risk this anymore and cook the burger thoroughly.

For backyard grillers, this means cooking until there are only clear juices and to the recommended 160 degrees F. Also, placing cooked burgers on the same bloody plate used to transport the patties to the grill ... you know who you are!

The average hamburger either sold in bulk or already in patties purchased by consumers in grocery stores or restaurants from wholesalers are a hodgepodge of meat from many different cows. Large slaughterhouses combine the meat, package it, and ship it across the country. This presents particular challenges to public health authorities during an outbreak as they try to trace the tainted meat back to a slaughterhouse and then to a particular farm. Steak eaters generally do not get sick because, unlike hamburger, the E. coli is on the surface and is killed by the high cooking temperature.

Raw vegetables and fruits have been implicated in outbreaks of food poisoning, often with E. coli as the cause. Washing them before eating usually is effective. However, as we have seen with raw bean and clover sprouts, E. coli can hide. The sprouts, usually sprinkled on salads and sandwiches, are generally seen as healthful. But, some public health experts believe that the bacteria hide in the seeds making cleaning difficult.

Raw milk and juice is another source of E. coli. As of 1987, raw milk cannot legally be sold across state lines and is regulated by states. The popular juice manufacturer Odwalla, pulled their unpasteurized apple juice off of the shelves in 1996 after their product was identified as the source of an outbreak of E. coli strain O157:H7 which sickened many and led to the death of a young child. E. coli O157:H7 is particularly mean, causing bloody diarrhea and kidney failure.

Likely, before the summer is over, there will be some smatterings of E. coli-caused disease, even in this metro area. Backyard grillers, beware. That mouth-watering pink-centered burger may be a masterpiece on the plate, but it can be toxic. Most often, the unhealthiest place to eat is at our own homes, not restaurants. Inexplicably, I am now craving a medium rare cheeseburger. Honey, fire up the grill and call the doctor.

As a Swami once said, “Crave for a thing, you will get it. Renounce the craving, the object will follow you by itself.”

Answers: 1. F; 2. T; 3. T.

Dr. Lori Boyajian-O’Neill can be contacted at lori.boyajian-oneill@hcahealthcare.com.