KANSAS CITY, Mo. – What’s being called a “super-toxic” strain of E. coli bacteria has so far resulted in 18 dead and 1,600 ill in Europe. Dr. Scott Hurd, associate professor of Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine, an Iowa State University professor who specializes in food-borne pathogens in livestock, is stunned at the havoc the rogue bacteria is reaping.

“I don’t like to be alarmist, but this one’s off the charts,” he said. “I’m shocked and saddened by the deaths and serious illnesses that have resulted from this poisonous strain that frankly is surprising everyone.”

The most notable E. coli outbreak in the US occurred in the early ‘90s when four children died and hundreds of others became sick in western states after eating undercooked and contaminated meat from Jack in the Box restaurants, Hurd said. The European outbreak is remarkable in comparison, added Hurd, who believes this is a rare strain rather than new as some scientists believe.

E. coli naturally exists in the gastrointestinal tracts of animals and humans, but sometimes a select few strains have the ability to produce a poison that can result in illness, damage to the kidneys and even death, he pointed out.

To date, raw tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce have been identified as possible E. coli bacteria carriers in Europe, with manure suspected as the source. Researchers still don’t know what the “food vehicle” is yet, so there’s no way to be sure the origin is manure, but Hurd noted that E. coli can often be traced back to “warm-blooded animals, whether that be cattle, deer or humans.”

Although bacteria like E. coli can travel quickly around the globe, no produce in the US has been contaminated with the European strain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. US consumers shouldn’t be concerned about this strain impacting the nations’ produce, said Hurd, but should always be conscientious about practicing food safety.

“If you cook fruits and vegetables, you don’t have to worry,” he added. “But most consumers eat them raw so wash them thoroughly, particularly leafy lettuce. Commercial produce rinses are an option. And be aware that organic produce often is fertilized with livestock manure.”

CDC has confirmed three Americans recently returning from trips to Germany have tested positive for the toxic E. coli strain and have developed kidney complications. However, CDC said the bacteria are rarely passed from person to person.

“This is 18 deaths in a world of six-billion people,” Hurd pointed out, noting that while the European outbreak is tragic and significant compared to other E. coli outbreaks, US consumers should not be concerned. “Consider, too, the possibility that this same thing may have happened 20 or 30 years ago but no one had the technology to connect the dots. While it seems new and scary, it may have been happening all along.”