Your Kitchen Is a Problem, Too

E. coli outbreaks from fresh produce are spreading further than they used to. Packaging practices are part of the problem, researchers say. Many companies mix greens from multiple farms together, which can divide contaminated produce into a slew of bags.

Still, despite the heightened risk, meat remains the biggest source of infection. At last count, 73,480 people got sick in 1999 from E. coli O157:H7, and 61 died. Ground beef caused 41 percent of the outbreaks; another 21 percent came from produce. Even if you did get sick from contaminated produce, chances are good the bug got there after purchase. Almost half of fruits and vegetables that bear E. coli get colonized in the kitchen when they come into contact with other contaminated food.

Sources of produce contamination abound, from the field to the cutting board. Short of irradiating produce, there's no way to eliminate the risk of getting sick. "Everybody's sort of hoping for the silver bullet," says Maria Brandl of the U. S. Department of Agriculture. "Maybe there's something out there that could kill all the bacteria on the plant surface, but not right now."