Recent outbreaks of food poisoning in other parts of the country illuminate a fact experts have known all along: If food isn’t handled properly, from farmland to the dinner table, food-borne illnesses can take hold and spread rapidly.

This fall, nearly 200 people from multiple states became ill after consuming bagged spinach contaminated by E. coli bacteria. Investigators determined the spinach was contaminated by animal feces. In November, at least 71 people became sick after eating at East Coast Taco Bell restaurants. E. coli-contaminated lettuce most likely was the culprit, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA will hold a public hearing on produce safety in early 2007, officials say.

Vegetables contaminated with bacteria from raw meat or animal feces easily can sicken a large group of people, said Dr. Brian Smith, regional director for Texas Department of State Health Services’ Region 11, which includes the Rio Grande Valley. That’s why preventive measures at home and in restaurants and stores are important, he said.