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E. Coli: What it is and how to avoid it

Updated on July 5, 2009

Wash, wash, wash, cook

There are hundreds of strains of the bacterium Escherichia coli. E. coli O157:H7 is one. Most of the strains are harmless however this strain produces a powerful toxin that can cause severe illness. E. coli O157:H7 has been found in the intestines of healthy cattle, deer, goats, and sheep.

The first outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 was first identified as a cause of illness in 1982 it happened during an outbreak of severe bloody diarrhea which was traced to contaminated hamburgers. Since then, undercooked hamburger, according to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), remains the number one cause of infection in the United States

The combination of letters and numbers in the name of the bacterium refers to the specific markers found on its surface and distinguishes it from other types of E. coli.

E. coli is commonly found in petting zoos and can live in the intestines of healthy cattle, deer, goats, and sheep. The organism can be found on most cattle farms. Meat can become contaminated during slaughter, and organisms can be accidentally mixed into meat when it is ground.

It is possible that bacteria may be present on the cow's udders or on equipment and thus may get into raw milk. In a petting zoo, E.coli O157:H7 can contaminate the ground, railings, feed bins, and fur of the animals.

If you eat meat, especially ground beef that has not been cooked sufficiently to kill E. coli O157:H7, you may become infected. You cannot see or smell anything unusual when meat is contaminated meat looks and smells normal. The number of organisms required to cause disease is very small.

Ground beef is not the only possible source of infection; the consumption of sprouts, lettuce, spinach, salami, unpasteurized milk and juice and by swimming in or drinking sewage-contaminated water may also result in contamination.

Bacteria in loose stool of infected persons can be passed from one person to another if hygiene or hand washing habits are inadequate. This is particularly likely among toddlers who are not toilet trained. Family members and playmates of these children are at high risk of becoming infected.

Young children typically shed the organism in their feces for a week or two after their illness resolves. Older children and adults rarely carry the organism without symptoms.

How to Reduce Your Chances of Getting E. coli

The CDC provides the following tips:

Wash fruits and vegetables under running water, especially those that will not be cooked. Be aware that bacteria are sticky, so even thorough washing may not remove all contamination. Remove the outer leaves of leafy vegetables. Children under 5 years of age, immunocompromised persons, and the elderly should avoid eating alfalfa sprouts until their safety can be assured. Persons at high risk of complications from food borne illness may choose to consume cooked vegetables and peeled fruits.

Avoid spreading harmful bacteria in your kitchen. Keep raw meat separate from ready-to-eat foods. Wash hands, counters, and utensils with hot soapy water after they touch raw meat. Never place cooked hamburgers or ground beef on the unwashed plate that held raw patties. Wash meat thermometers in between tests of patties that require further cooking.

Because ground beef can turn brown before disease-causing bacteria are killed, use a digital instant-read meat thermometer to ensure thorough cooking. Ground beef should be cooked until a thermometer inserted into several parts of the patty, including the thickest part, reads at least 160º F. Persons who cook ground beef without using a thermometer can decrease their risk of illness by not eating ground beef patties that are still pink in the middle.


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  • Bob Ewing profile image

    Bob Ewing 10 years ago from New Brunswick

    I use vinegar regularly

  • Katherine Baldwin profile image

    Katherine Baldwin 10 years ago from South Carolina

    Hi Bob, great info. Cleanliness in the kitchen is paramount!. My brother says if you look in the dictionary for excessive kitchen cleanliness, you will see my picture there as the definition. Very funny - but the vinegar manufacturers really love me.

  • Bob Ewing profile image

    Bob Ewing 10 years ago from New Brunswick

    Thanks Michele and I will.

  • Michele Engholm profile image

    Michele Engholm 10 years ago from Hutchinson

    Hi Bob! I just love your hubs...Keep them coming..

    Thanks so much!