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With the recent outbreak of E. coli, what can I do to safely prepare raw vegetables?

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E. coli is a type of bacteria that will not harm us most of the time. But some strains can make us sick and, on occasion, even be fatal.

We cannot see it or taste it. It can survive for weeks on surfaces and in compost heaps, and is found in contaminated seeds, irrigation water and in manure used to fertilize crops.

Here is what to do to best avoid getting sick. There is no 100-per-cent way to guard against this hardy organism, but these precautions will help.

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Personal hygiene should be a priority. Wash your hands after using the toilet, changing a baby's diaper, picking up dog poop. Wash your hands in warm soapy water before you start preparing food.

Store meat and vegetables separately, and as E. coli is often found in raw meat and poultry (it gets killed by the heat of cooking), keep a dedicated chopping board for them. I use plastic, which I then scrub and occasionally bleach before putting it away. Make sure your knife is clean and has not touched any meat before you cut vegetables.

Clean your lettuce and wash your vegetables as soon as you bring them home to prevent any cross-contamination. For lettuce, remove the base where dirt may hide and wash each leaf separately to remove any dirt, which is a carrier of E. coli. I find warm water is best for dislodging dirt, but use cool if there is no dirt visible to the eye. Use a salad spinner to remove as much water as you can, wrap the leaves in paper towels and store in a plastic resealable bag. This gives you pristine, washed leaves for salad all week.

Rewash all vegetables – even prewashed packaged greens – before using, especially if you are making a raw vegetable salad. Wash all fruits, too.

Some bacteria in our gut is a good thing; after all, what are probiotics for? But if you follow the rules of personal and kitchen hygiene, you will lower the risk of E. coli contamination.

Need some advice about kitchen life and entertaining? Send your questions to lwaverman@globeandmail.com.

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