London: Contaminated soil stuck on potatoes and leeks may have been the source of an E.coli outbreak in the UK earlier this year, the country`s Health Protection Agency (HPA) has said.
There were 250 cases of E.coli infection reported from across the UK between December 2010 and July 2011 and it may be linked to the handling of potatoes and leeks that had been bought loose rather than washed and wrapped, the HPA said.
"The vegetables could have carried traces of contaminated soil," said Bob Adak, head of the HPA`s outbreak control team.
"It is possible that people caught the infection from cross-contamination in storage, inadequate washing of loose vegetables, insufficient hand washing after handling the
vegetables or by failing to thoroughly clean kitchen equipment, utensils or surfaces after preparing the vegetables," Dr Adak was quoted as saying by the BBC News.
Most of the cases were mild, but 74 people needed to go to hospital and one patient with underlying health problems died.
The disease was caused by a rare strain of E. coli called O157 PT8 which is different from the strain that caused the widespread outbreak in Germany.
Infected people were 40 times more likely to have been in a household where loose leeks were handled and 12 times more likely to have been in a household which bought sacked
potatoes than people who stayed infection-free.
Dr Andrew Wadge, chief scientist at the Food Standards Agency, said: "It`s sadly a myth that a little bit of dirt doesn`t do you any harm.
"Soil can sometimes carry harmful bacteria and, although food producers have good systems in place to clean vegetables, the risk can never be entirely eliminated.
"This outbreak is a timely reminder that it is essential to wash all fruits and vegetables, including salad, before you eat them."
Meanwhile, the HPA said the vegetables were safe to eat but stressed that they should be properly washed before use.