Here we go again…talking about E.coli. Just a few days ago, we heard about the outbreak in North Bay, Ontario where the number of confirmed and suspected cases of E. coli O157:H7 poisoning has risen to 159. The source of the bacterium has been linked to a fast food restaurant this time.
So what is this E.coli and why is it so important? You can’t see it, smell it or taste it. But it can leave you fighting for your life, especially if your immune system is weak or compromised. E. coli or Escherichia coli (named after Escherich who first discovered it) are a type of bacteria commonly found in the intestines of animals and humans. There are hundreds of strains of the bacterium, but E. coli O157:H7 is possibly the most dangerous as it produces a powerful toxin that can cause severe illness.
E. coli O157:H7 was first recognized in the United States in 1982, when an outbreak of severe, bloody diarrhoea was traced to contaminated hamburgers. It was then called the “hamburger disease.” E. coli O157:H7 can contaminate ground beef during the butchering process. If it is present in the intestines of the slaughtered animal, it can get into the meat as it is ground into hamburger.
Canada’s worst-ever E. coli outbreak occurred in Walkerton, Ontario in May 2000, after the bacteria got into the town’s water supply. More than 2,300 people were affected. The source of the contamination was manure spread on a farmer’s field near one of the town’s wells. Health authorities across the country normally deal with a few thousand cases of E. coli illness every year.
Sources of E. coli
E. coli comes from human and animal wastes. During precipitation, E. coli may be washed into creeks, rivers, streams, lakes, or groundwater. When these are used as sources of drinking water — and the water is not treated or inadequately treated — E. coli may end up in drinking water. This is what we call the sewage or fecal contamination of water. It indicates that the water is not fit for human consumption.
Although the bacteria are mainly found in meats, it is also present in unpasteurized milk and fruit juices, ham, turkey, chicken, roast beef, sandwich meats, raw vegetables, fruits and cheese. Once someone has eaten contaminated food, the infection can be passed from person-to-person, and by hand-to-mouth contact. The bacteria are most often spread from person-to-person.
These are characterized by severe abdominal cramping that can appear within hours of eating any contaminated food but could also take up to 10 days to show up. Some people may also be afflicted with bloody diarrhoea or non-bloody diarrhoea, nausea and fever. Some people may show no symptoms at all, but can still carry the bacteria and pass it on to people who will become sick.
Since most cases of E. coli infections are contagious (passed from person to person), good personal hygiene is critical to protecting yourself.
- Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently.
- Don’t handle food if you are suffering from diarrhoea.
- Wash raw fruits and vegetables thoroughly before cooking or cutting them.
- Sanitize food preparation surfaces and utensils.
- Anyone known to be infected with E. coli, should not share dishes, cutlery or glasses with anyone else. Their towels, face cloths and bedding should be washed separately in hot water and bleach.
- Call your family doctor for any unusual symptoms that you notice in your health or that of your family.
Some of the proper food handling techniques to minimize exposure to E.coli include:
- Refrigerate or freeze meat as soon as possible after buying it and then thaw frozen meat in the refrigerator, not on the counter.
- Use a digital food thermometer when cooking ground beef, which should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 71 C (160 F).
- Serve cooked meat immediately or keep it hot (60 C or 140 F).
- Clean and sanitize countertops and utensils after contact with raw meat.
- Don’t store raw and cooked food together.
- If you marinate meat, don’t use the liquid as a dip or to pour over cooked meat.
- Drink only pasteurized milk or juice fruit juices.
- Drink water from a supply known to be safe. If you have a private water supply (well) it should be tested several times a year.
If you need further information on E.coli or performing a water quality test, please visit our web-site www.moldbacteria.com or call us at 905-290-9101.
Article by: Sneha Panchal, M.Sc.