Contaminated food is an extremely common problem. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that germs in food make 48 million Americans sick every year — that’s one out of six people. About 128,000 are made sick enough to be hospitalized, and 3,000 die.

This year, the CDC has investigated 22 outbreaks, including the dangerous E. coli outbreak currently linked to romaine lettuce. It’s the highest number of total investigations in the past 12 years.

The FDA and the CDC have cautioned people not to eat romaine lettuce while they investigate the outbreak. It’s very similar to an outbreak of E. coli that killed one person and made at least 25 people ill last year that was traced to leafy green vegetables but not to romaine lettuce specifically.

This is the second outbreak of E. coli linked to romaine lettuce this year. An outbreak in the spring killed five people and made 210 sick in 36 states. It was eventually traced to contaminated canal water in a farming area in Yuma, Arizona.

Although California may be the source of romaine lettuce blamed in an outbreak of E. coli infections that has made 32 people sick in 11 states and Canada, the CDC is stressing that we continue to be cautious of romaine lettuce regardless of its origin.

Is romaine somehow riskier than other vegetables and fruits? Not likely.

What is known is where E. coli comes from. Like so many other bacteria that contaminate food, it comes from fecal matter. Wild animals may roam through fields, or irrigation water might flow from nearby pastures or feedlots where livestock is raised.

Contamination can be further spread when produce is harvested and passes through machinery to clean, trim, chop and package it. Like many other foods, romaine is often processed and repackaged before it ships out to grocery stores and restaurants.

Eating a diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables provides important health benefits, but it’s important that you select and prepare them safely.

Fruits and vegetables add nutrients to your diet that help protect you from heart disease, stroke and some cancers. In addition, choosing vegetables, fruits, nuts and other produce over high-calorie foods can help you manage your weight.

But sometimes raw fruits and vegetables contain harmful germs, such as salmonella, E. coli and Listeria, that can make you and your family sick. In the United States, nearly half of food-borne illnesses are caused by germs on fresh produce.

Since fresh fruits and vegetables are not cooked, anything that is left on them after they come into contact with other things will be consumed. This includes micro-organisms in organic manure and in the water used for irrigation and initial rinsing, microbes on the hands of the people who pick the produce, the containers and vehicles used to store and transport it, and droppings from birds that fly over the field.

Eating unwashed, raw fruits and vegetables increases your risk of dangerous bacterial infections, including E. Coli and salmonella. If you eat fruits without proper washing, there will be a high chance that various disease-causing microorganisms could cause food poisoning.

Wash everything that will come into contact with your produce while you’re cooking, including your hands, cooking surfaces, utensils and the produce itself. It is best to wash your fruits and vegetables under running water. Make sure to remove any bruised or damaged areas of the produce. Be sure to store all cut or peeled fruits and vegetables properly. And remember, they should be refrigerated within two hours of preparation if they are not going to be cooked.

Certain people have a greater chance of getting food poisoning and it is especially important to be careful when preparing food for them. Those people are the very young, adults over 65 years old, pregnant women and anyone with a weakened immune system.

Although most cases of food poisoning are mild, only lasting a few days, there are some more severe forms. If you experience vomiting or diarrhea for more than three days, have a fever higher than 101 degrees, or see blood in your stool, you should talk to your doctor immediately.

With a little bit of new knowledge and care, you can protect yourself, enjoy a healthier diet and live a healthier life. Just remember to buy right, store properly, separate for safety and prepare safely.

The safest produce is cooked; the next safest is washed. Enjoy uncooked fruits and vegetables while taking steps to avoid food-borne illness, also known as food poisoning.

How you handle food matters — whether it’s meat, poultry, fruits, vegetables, baked goods or leftovers. The harmful bugs that cause food poisoning can show up in any of those foods.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

Glenn Ellis is a health columnist, author and radio commentator. He can be heard Saturdays at 9 a.m. at www.wurdradio.com and Sundays at 8:30 a.m. at www.wdasfm.com. For more health information, visit www.glennellis.com.

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