Ask Dr. Sam Beattie about the recent E. coli outbreak, and he’ll tell you that we live in a “microbial ocean.”

“Microorganisms are literally everywhere, including on and inside of us, and most of the food that we eat,” says the assistant professor of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University.

“Fortunately,” he continues, “most do not make us ill; however, there are viruses, bacteria and parasites that will do so. Bacteria are found in the soil in which the food is grown, the water that it is irrigated with, the feces and hands of those that harvest and handle it, animals that pass through and over the fields leave their waste, pests that eat it or live on it, containers that hold food during transit to processing, and almost everywhere through processing.”

Processing cannot eliminate bacteria in fresh foods.

“Bacteria are tough to kill,” Dr. Beattie explains. “During the growing and processing of precut fruits or bagged leafy vegetables, there are several steps that are designed to reduce or eliminate many of the bacteria, but the processing steps must be mild enough to avoid destruction of the produce. So, there may be some residual bacteria present on the food. If the food was contaminated by an illness-causing bacteria or virus, like other organisms, they may not be completely eliminated by the processing. It is important to prevent these bacteria from growing.”

Dr. Beattie believes prepackaged foods are as safe as most other fresh foods, but it is important to examine how much handling occurs.

“More hand contact may increase the risk of fecal contamination of the food by the handler,” he says. “Indeed, the leading cause of foodborne illness is a virus that is transmitted by human-stool contamination of the food. Also, temperature abuse of any fresh food will increase the potential for illness-causing bacteria to grow. Cold is the key for precut or bagged produce.”

The recent strain of E. coli seems to be particularly infectious, Dr. Beattie notes. Only 10 to 100 organisms may be needed to make a person ill.

“In most healthy adults, the illness runs its course in about eight days,” he says. “Young children and the elderly may have very severe complications that include anemia and kidney failure, fever and neurological issues. This is why it is so important to feed kids well-cooked meats and pasteurized juices.”

If you practice organic living, you’re likely to be more aware of food issues, so share this important info with your family, friends and colleagues.