E. coli O157:H7 commonly is associated with foodborne illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 73,000 cases of infection and 61 deaths occur each year from this strain.
Most strains of E. coli are harmless to humans. E. coli O157:H7 is an exception and produces a powerful toxin that can result in severe illness. Most infections in the United States are caused by eating undercooked ground beef, but infections from this strain can result from other foods, including spinach, sprouts, lettuce, salami, and unpasteurized milk and juice.
People diagnosed with E. coli O157:H7 typically become ill within two to eight days of exposure to the bacteria. Symptoms typically include severe bloody diarrhea and adbominal cramps.
Children under the age of five and elderly persons are at the greatest risk of serious complications from exposure to E. coli O157:H7. This strain of E. coli can lead to hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which can result in the destruction of red blood cells and kidney failure.
Preventing E. coli O157:H7 Infection
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides the following tips for avoiding infection:
- Cook all ground beef and hamburger thoroughly. Ground beef should be cooked until a thermometer inserted into several parts of the patty, including the thickest part, reads at least 160° 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.
- If you are served an undercooked hamburger or other ground beef product in a restaurant, send it back for further cooking. You should insist on a new bun and a clean plate, as well.
- 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.
- Drink only pasteurized milk, juice or cider.
- Wash fruits and vegetables under running water, especially those that will not be cooked.
- Drink municipal water that has been treated with chlorine or another effective disinfectant.
- Avoid swallowing lake or pool water while swimming.
- Make sure that persons with diarrhea, especially children, wash their hands carefully with soap after bowel movements to reduce the risk of spreading infection, and that persons wash hands after changing soiled diapers.
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