| 6.3°C Dublin

'Wash your veg' warning in E.coli alert

PEOPLE are being warned to wash fruit and vegetables thoroughly after experts linked an E.coli outbreak to bacteria contained in soil.

Some 250 people became ill with gastrointestinal disease, including vomiting and diarrhoea, between December last year and this July.

They had a subtype of E.coli O157 known as Phage Type 8 (PT8) and cases occurred across England, Scotland and Wales.

Around 74 people ended up in hospital, with four suffering from a complication called Haemolytic Uraemic Syndrome. One patient, who had underlying health problems, died.

Today, the Health Protection Agency (HPA) said people should ensure they wash fruit, vegetables and salads thoroughly, and keep their kitchens clean to prevent another potential outbreak.

An HPA investigation found a link between the illness and handling loose leeks and potatoes in the home.

The cases involved potatoes and leeks bought in or bought from sacks, rather than those that were pre-packaged.

There was no evidence that one particular retailer or variety of the vegetable was to blame.

Researchers found that people who were unwell were 40 times more likely to have been in a household where people handled leeks sold loose, and 12 times more likely to have been in a household where people handled potatoes bought in or sold from sacks.

However, while handling raw vegetables offered an explanation for most cases, it did not explain them all.

Dr Bob Adak, a gastrointestinal disease expert at the HPA and head of the outbreak control team, said: "We want to stress that it is safe to eat these vegetables as long as they have been stored correctly, thoroughly washed before cooking and good kitchen hygiene practices are followed.

"In this outbreak, which is now over, the vegetables could have carried traces of contaminated soil."

Dr Andrew Wadge, chief scientist at the Food Standards Agency, said: "This outbreak is a timely reminder that it is essential to wash all fruits and vegetables, including salad, before you eat them, unless they are labelled 'ready to eat', to ensure that they are clean."