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What the heck is E. Coli?
How to stay safe over the holiday -- and every day
ATLANTA (CNN) -- Summer grill and picnic season is upon us, and with it comes the risk of bacterial illness and food poisoning.
One of the deadlier diseases comes from a variety of Escherichia coli bacteria called O157:H7. Often associated with undercooked contaminated ground beef, it is just one of hundreds of strains of E. coli.
Most of these bacteria live harmlessly in the intestines of healthy people and animals. In fact, we need E. coli to produce essential compounds like K- and B-complex vitamins.
But the bad boy O157:H7 makes a powerful toxin that can cause severe bloody diarrhea and life-threatening complications such as kidney failure. It is particularly dangerous to young children and the elderly.
Recent outbreaks linked to contaminated drinking water in Ontario, Canada, sickened thousands and apparently led to at least seven deaths. Five children were sickened earlier this month in Everett, Washington, from visits to a petting zoo.
So what's a backyard cook or park-bound family to do?
Before you pack your basket, know the facts. In addition to ground beef, E. coli bacterial illness has been connected to the consumption of unpasteurized milk and fruit juices, unwashed fruits and vegetables and swimming in or drinking sewage-contaminated water.
The best way to avoid E. coli infection is to wash fruits and vegetables and cook meats thoroughly before eating. Even the skins of watermelons and cantaloupes should be washed to eliminate potentially harmful bacteria.
"You canít determine doneness by the color or the feel," says Kathleen Zelman of the American Dietetic Association. "You need to use a thermometer, and you need to use a thermometer that you can slide into the side of a hamburger patty."
Ground beef should be cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Sorry, rare beef lovers, but those red, warm centers can be dangerous. No more pink can mean no more bacteria.
People also need to be vigilant in hand washing, especially if a family member is sick.
And E. coli isn't the only bug that can spoil a summer picnic. Salmonella and campylobacter can lurk in chicken and trichinosis is found in pork.
To be safe, cook chicken breasts to 170 degrees Fahrenheit and wings and thighs until the juices run clear. Pork, like beef, should be cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
Food experts also warn that a bacterium called Listeria can even infiltrate hot dog packages labeled "fully cooked." Because of this, hot dogs should be reheated until they are steamy hot throughout.
At home, avoid spreading harmful bacteria by keeping raw meat separate from ready-to-eat foods. Wash hands, counters, cutting boards and utensils with hot, soapy water after they touch raw meat. And never put cooked hamburgers or ground beef on an unwashed plate that held raw patties. You should also wash your meat thermometer in between meat-temperature tests.
Diagnosing E. coli infection can be tricky. There is usually little or no fever, and diarrhea may or may not be bloody. Abdominal cramps are common. Because of the danger of potentially fatal kidney failure, very young children and infirm adults who exhibit these symptoms should be tested for E. coli infection.
CNN Medical Correspondent Linda Ciampa contributed to this report.
Coroner investigating 9 deaths in Canada's E. coli outbreak
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Foodborne Diseases
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