Tragically, this summer, two separate outbreaks of the E-coli O157 bug have claimed the lives of three people, with many more infected with the deadly bacteria.
In Scotland, 20 cases were confirmed in July in South Lanarkshire, leading to 11 people needing hospital treatment and the heart-breaking death of a child. A full investigation into the cause is ongoing, with the focus currently on Dunsyre blue cheese, made with unpasteurised milk. The company that makes the cheese has said that tests found it to be clear of the bacteria.
In south west England, rocket imported from the Mediterranean appears to be the focus of Public Health England's investigation into a similar outbreak, which has infected more than 150 people and killed two. Children are particularly vulnerable to E-coli O157 because their immune systems are less developed. My own personal hope is that children's dislike of salad generally will prevent more infant deaths.
The point about both these terrible stories is that authorities in Scotland and England will be desperately working to find the cause of the outbreak to prevent further infection, but it can be like looking for a needle in a haystack.
The link to an E-coli O157 outbreak is so difficult to pin down, not least because people often only display symptoms of the infection 10 days or more after exposure. What is fact is that the bacteria have to be ingested to infect a person, albeit in tiny amounts.
Trying to establish the fingerprint of a certain food or environment those affected have in common can take months, involving swabbing patients and minutely examining food chains and production facilities. For example, a massive outbreak of E-coli O157 in Japan in 1996, probably the worst in history, was eventually linked back to white radish sprouts grown on one particular farm and served in school lunches. Thousands were infected and at least 12 children died.
In my experience representing the parents of children infected by E-coli O157 during what should be fun outings to family farm days is that there is too little information about how to protect children in particular from the deadly bug. Washing facilities are usually insufficient, lacking hot water and soap, with no warning about the risks of handling farm animals and, let's face it, allowing children to roll about in hay containing manure.
E-coli O157 bacteria attack the kidneys, which causes renal failure and, if not carefully managed, brain damage and ultimately death. I've seen this first hand and it is catastrophic. Children who survive live with a lifelong risk of recurring kidney problems because damaged kidneys do not regenerate. Their parents simply have to wait and see if their children's damaged bodies can sustain their growth into adulthood and, in the case of girls, their ability to bear children of their own.
Any tragedies like that in Japan and the most recent in the UK have to be a wake-up call for authorities and governments to seriously examine animal husbandry and the food chain. Cattle are always the common ingredient in outbreaks - manure used to fertilise fruit and vegetables or simply present in petting zoos and farm environments.
It cannot fall only to the consumer to protect themselves from something they can't see. Simply rinsing lettuce the way most of do offers little protection. The responsibility lies with producers, public venues and health and safety agencies always to be alert to the dangers of this horribly virulent bug and to keep food and animals bacteria free.
Jill Greenfield acted for families affected by the Godstone Farm E Coli 0157 outbreak in 2009 and is currently acting for those connected to the outbreak at Huntley's Farm in Lancashire in 2014.