Meat is the typical culprit in widespread food poisoning, but vegetable contamination may actually be to blame at the fast food chain

By Macaela Mackenzie
Corbis Images

In case you haven't been keeping up on your fast food news, an outbreak of E. coli-the bacteria that can cause some seriously miserable food poisoning-in Oregon has led Chipotle to close 43 of its restaurants in the Pacific Northwest. It might be time to back away from the burritos...

Actually, it's not just the meat. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture did announce a recall of more than 167,000 pounds of beef earlier this week, health officials in Oregon are actually attributing Chipotle's woes to the chain's veggies. Meat tends to be the first suspect in outbreaks like this, as most of us fear eating undercooked beef and chicken.

"It's not just a meat issue. I've seen E. coli infections in very strict vegetarians," says Niket Sonpal, M.D., assistant clinical professor of gastroenterology at Touro College of Medicine.

Since E. coli is an intestinal bacteria found in humans and animals, it gets spread by-you guessed it-poop. If contaminated waste gets into manure or the irrigation water used for crops, the bacteria spreads to the produce. Infected animals can even contaminate a crop by leaving droppings in a field of normally healthy tomatoes and lettuce leaves. Yuck. (P.S. Even Beach Sand May Be Infected by E. Coli.)

E. coli lives in your intestines as a part of your natural gut microbiome. (Find out 6 Ways Your Microbiome Affects Your Health.) But when you consume certain strains of the bacteria (of which there are hundreds), it can cause certain side effects-we're talking diarrhea, stomach pain, and high fever. Severe E. coli infections can even cause kidney failure. Yikes! "The food item doesn't matter as much as the specific strain of E. coli," says Sonpal.

So are you supposed to swear off veggies now? Of course not. But there are some things you can do in the kitchen and in a restaurant to keep yourself contamination-free. Since infected vegetables harbor the E. coli bacteria on the surface, it's extra important to wash your produce before you consume it. The most common place for the bacteria to breed is still meat, so make sure you're cooking your steaks all the way through-even though E. coli can be found in a well-done order, the chances are lower than when a dish is prepared rare. But, head's up: Ground beef is especially risky. Since one burger patty can contain meat from many animals, which can come from many different places, the risk that just one of them might be contaminated is higher.

Meanwhile, if you've been to Chipotle since October 1 and are feeling a little...off, you might want to head to your doc. (You've Eaten Something from a Food Recall; Now What?)

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