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Ways to Prevent E.coli Infections

By Kathy Hubbard

Periodically we hear about a recall of lettuce or hamburger or some other products because they’re suspected of carrying the bacteria Escherichia coli (E.coli). We’ll be told that the source of the problem is unknown, but that some people have reportedly gotten sick from eating a particular food.

“E.coli bacteria normally live in the intestines of healthy people and animals. Most varieties of E. coli are harmless or cause relatively brief diarrhea. But a few particularly nasty strains, such as E. coli 0157:H7, can cause severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea, and vomiting,” Mayo Clinic explains.

0157:H7 produces a potent toxin called Shiga (STEC), which can harm the lining of the small intestine. Illness can start anywhere from one to ten days after exposure, but most people will start feeling sick three to four days after eating or drinking something that contains the bacteria.

“Most healthy adults recover from E. coli illness within a week. Some people – particularly young children and older adults – may develop a life-threatening form of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS),” Mayo says.

HUS typically develops about a week after symptoms first appear. You might even be feeling better. It’s a medical emergency if you feel very tired, have lost the pink in your cheeks and inside your lower eyelids, and have decreased frequency of urination. You will want to seek immediate attention before your kidneys stop functioning and cause permanent damage.

Ground beef is a common carrier of E.coli bacteria. “When cattle are slaughtered and processed, E. coli bacteria in their intestines can get on the meat. Ground beef combines meat from many different cattle, increasing the risk of contamination,” Mayo says. This doesn’t mean you have to stop eating a burger or making Grandma’s recipe for meatballs. It means that the meat has to be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees to kill off the bacteria.

Fruits and vegetables grown where livestock or wild animals roam are also susceptible to E.coli. The concern isn’t just about the produce you purchase in the grocery store; your home garden must be protected as well.

“While the risk of spreading pathogens in a home garden is small, it’s there, especially if you use animal manure,” experts at Oregon State University Extension Service tell us in an article published in the Oregonian. They recommend using compost rather than manure, and if you do spread manure, make sure it doesn’t touch edible plants, particularly those that touch the soil such as carrots, potatoes, lettuce, and melons.

“If you put manure in your compost pile, turn it often. To kill pathogens, the pile must reach temperatures of about 130 degrees. For that to happen throughout the compost, you need to turn it about five times during the process.”

Use clean, potable water for irrigation. Then always wash produce in clean water and use a vegetable brush to remove visible soil before eating. They also say that peeling helps to reduce risk and to be sure to keep raw food separated from cooked food.

And, of course, wash your hands. Wash your hands after touching an animal, wash your hands after preparing raw food, wash your hands after using the toilet and wash your hands after touching anyone who may be infected with any virus or bacterial infection.

Besides ground beef and fresh produce, another commonly infected food is unpasteurized milk. “E. coli bacteria on a cow’s udder or milking equipment can get into raw milk,” Mayo says. And also on the risky list are unpasteurized apple juice or cider, and soft cheeses made from raw milk.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adds raw dough to the no, no list. “Flour doesn’t look like a raw food, but typically it is. Harmful germs can contaminate grain while it’s still in the field or at other steps during flour production. Processing steps like grinding grain and bleaching flour do not kill germs like E.coli.”

Gosh, I hate to tell you not to lick that spoon, but don’t. And, don’t let the children eat the dough they use for craft projects either. “Follow the recipe or package directions for cooking or baking at the proper temperature and for the specified time,” CDC says.


Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at kathyleehubbard@yahoo.com.

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