From time to time stories will hit the news of E. coli outbreaks. Meat or vegetables will be pulled from the grocery stores in an attempt to stop the spread of the bacterium. What is the big deal about E. coli, and what can be done to kill E. coli once it has been found?
E. coli stands for Escherichia coli, and refers to a group of bacteria that are commonly found in food and water. Most of these bacteria are harmless, but some can cause sickness. Those that cause disease do so by creating the Shiga toxin, which makes people sick. This toxin most commonly leads to stomach and intestinal problems, such as diarrhea and vomiting. Some people can get infections that become life-threatening, while others recover after about a week. Children, those with immune system disorders, and the elderly are at the highest risk of facing a life-threatening case of E. coli.
The disease-causing E. coli strains live in the intestinal tracts of animals that ruminate, such as cows, deer and goats. It typically does not cause any problems for the animal, but when the manure from an infected animal comes in contact with humans or their food or water sources, it can cause contamination that leads to E. coli outbreaks. Most people who get E. coli get it from eating infected food, unpasteurized milk, or unsafe water. Recent outbreaks have come from contaminated vegetables. It can also be spread from human to human through contact with feces of infected individuals. Raw meat can also carry E. coli.
Many people think that raw meat is the most common source of E. coli. This is untrue. In a study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cases of E. coli between 1990 and 2003 were studied. The most common source of the bacterium was seafood, but the second most common source was fresh produce. The problem with E. coli found in produce is that it is very difficult to kill without cooking the food. Washing the food can help, but if the contamination is inside there is little you can do. Make sure you follow any recalls and remove food from your home if it has been recalled.
E. coli is a bacterium, so washing your hands thoroughly with anti-bacterial soap after using the restroom, handling raw meat, or doing any other activity that could put you in contact with contaminated materials is essential to kill any E. coli you may have touched. To kill E. coli in your food, make sure you cook all meat thoroughly. Meat should be cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit/70 degrees Celsius. Wash all dishes that come in contact with raw meat with hot water and anti-bacterial soap. Keep in mind that you could still be exposed to E. coli in fresh fruits and vegetables.
While E. coli may not be completely preventable, proper hygiene and food handling processes are very important to prevent the spread of this bacterium. Use a meat thermometer to ensure that all meat you cook is thoroughly cooked. Wash your hands frequently, especially after preparing food or using the restroom, and teach your children to do the same. Avoid cross-contamination by not re-using utensils that have come in contact with raw meat. Clean all counters thoroughly after preparing food using an antibacterial cleaner to kill any E. coli that may be on the counter.
Common symptoms of E. coli include strong stomach cramps, which start very suddenly. You will soon experience diarrhea and sometimes vomiting. Bloody diarrhea is also common, as is a mild fever. Because you could easily become dehydrated and because of the risk of the disease spreading, talk to your doctor as soon as you begin noticing these symptoms. They will usually occur about seven days after you ate the infected food.