This is part 1 of a multi-part feature series covering the food-borne illnesses responsible for most food recalls in the United States.
What Consumers Should Know About E.coli
You’ve probably heard of the food poisoning known as E.coli. Beyond the fact that it can make you really sick, all consumers should understand how this illness manifests, both to minimize your risk and spot the symptoms in the event of infection.
Escherichia coli (E. coli) refers to a group of bacteria that have the potential to cause serious medical problems in humans. Many types of E.coli produce Shiga toxin, a substance that is extremely poisonous to humans. Shiga toxin-producing E.coli, or STEC for short, are often the culprit in mass outbreaks that can span several states and harm thousands of people. A recent ground beef recall by Fairbank Farms in New England illustrates the damage that these tiny bacteria can do.
Effects of E.coli
E.coli 0157 is the most commonly identified STEC in North America, and the strain responsible for causing the most cases of severe and deadly illness. Generally, the non-0157 strains are far less likely to cause serious problems, although there are some types that can be fatal, as well. E.coli 0157 presents the threat of a potentially fatal syndrome known as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a condition that can result in kidney failure, permanent injuries, and death.
Where E.coli are Found
Both 0157 and non-0157 stains of E.coli bacteria are carried and bred in the stomachs of cattle, goats, deer, sheep, elk, and other ruminant animals, and can be spread by other animals such as pigs and birds, too. E.coli is also found in produce, like spinach and unpasteurized fruit juices, as a result of manure from infected animals being used as fertilizer on farms.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
Stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting are some of the symptoms that can lead a physician to order blood and stool tests. Treatment is minimal and involves simple supportive therapy (hydration and electrolyte balance) as the bacteria must work their way through the body. In many cases of STEC poisoning, patients will fully recover with no long-term effects. For others, STEC infection can mean kidney failure and lifelong medical problems.
Tips For Preventing E.coli Poisoning
- Be sure to wash your hands consistently after using the restroom, touching public surfaces, and coming into contact with animals. Wash up before and after preparing food, as well.
- Cook meat products thoroughly to kill any bacteria present. Use a meat thermometer to ensure your food reaches recommended safe temperatures, especially in the middle. When ordering out, ask for your meat well done.
- Unpasteurized milks and juices can transmit E.coli and other bacteria, so purchase pasteurized products to reduce your risk.
- Wash all counter surfaces, cutting boards, and utensils before and after preparing food to avoid cross-contamination.
- Clean fruits and vegetables thoroughly before consumption using a safe produce wash and water.
More Information on E.coli
You can avoid the serious effects of E.coli poisoning by educating yourself on this foodborne illness and taking steps to reduce your risk daily. To learn more about E.coli, talk to your primary care physician and visit these links:
- Our Archive of E.coli Recalls
- CDC’s Foodborne Illness FAQ page
- CDC’s FAQ page on E.coli 0157
- USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)
- CDC’s Food Safety Office
- CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Bacterial, and Mycotic Diseases
- National Advisory Committee on Meat & Poultry Inspection
The Other Three Articles in this Series on Common Food Borne Illnesses: