Escherichia coli, or E. coli which is a shorter version of the name, refers to an illness from foodborne pathogens that may be transmitted from: 1) Person to person if hands, utensils and counters were not washed thoroughly; 2) Ingesting contaminated liquid substances such as may occur by swimming in contaminated water, drinking raw milk or unpasteurized ciders and juices; 3) Eating food that is undercooked such as raw ground meat (hamburger or sausage)as well as meat infected during processing that is not cooked sufficiently to kill the bacteria; or: 4) Eating produce that is contaminated with bacteria, such as occurs with plants coming in contact with feces or sewage from contaminated water.
E. coli often may exist in the intestines of healthy persons and animals, but may go undetected because it is one of the hundreds of harmless strains of the bacterium. E.coli O157:H7 refers to the specific markers denoting the harmful strain, that causes the infection producing a strong toxin that results in the illness. Approximately 5% of the infected persons with E. coli develop Hemolytic Utemic Syndrome (HUS) which may become fatal. As the E. coli toxin increases, red blood cells begin to clot in small capillaries which may result in the need for blood transfusions, kidney dialysis and injections of intravenous fluids. Symptoms may include diarrhea with blood, a slight fever or no fever, abdominal cramps, dehydration, colitis, neurological symptoms, or other complications for immune systems that are not fully developed in small children or in a weakened condition for older adults. This illness may last 5 to 10 days and is commonly not treated with the use of antibiotics because of lack of evidence to support the use of drugs as a corrective measure. Similarly, it is advisable to avoid medications considered to be antidiarrheal agents, such as loperamide (Imodium), as a preventative measure.
To help prevent the foodborne E. coli from causing harm, use preventative measures when consuming foods such as:
- Make sure the juices of raw or fresh meats being transported do not leak onto other foods. Clean any areas, such as counters, thoroughly after any leakage has occurred.
- Do not reuse wrappings that contained fresh meats and if they had been placed in a container, make sure the container is effectively washed with hot soapy water after use and before allowing other foods to be placed in the container.
- When preparing foods always keep hands and counters clean and well sanitized. Wash hands in hot soapy water and make sure sponges or other cleaning tools are well washed and cleaned thoroughly with cleaning agents.
- If there is any question about the cleanliness of a utensil or preparation area, clean the areas of conern with a mixture of 1 teaspoon of bleach for each quart of water.
- When handling raw or fresh foods, always wash utensils, plates and surfaces after the food has been moved with or from the area where it was sitting. If meat is placed on a plate and moved from counter to a pan or surface of a stove or grill, make sure the cooked meat removed after cooking is not placed on any uncleaned surface or area where raw or fresh foods have been placed.
- Use food thermometers to make sure ground meats and other foods are cooked to the proper temperatures. Then, thoroughly clean the thermometer with hot soapy water when finished using it.
- Do not drink raw milk or any unpasteurized ciders or juices.