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  1. Outbreaks of Foodborne Illness

Escherichia coli (E. coli)

Escherichia coli (E. coli)

E. coli are mostly harmless bacteria that live in the intestines of people and animals and contribute to intestinal health. However, eating or drinking food or water contaminated with certain types of E. coli can cause mild to severe gastrointestinal illness. Some types of pathogenic (illness-causing) E. coli, such as Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC), can be life-threatening.

Some wildlife, livestock, and humans are occasional carriers of pathogenic E. coli and can contaminate meats and food crops. Contamination is typically spread when feces come into contact with food or water.  Human carriers can spread infections when food handlers do not use proper hand washing hygiene after using the restroom. Pets and petting zoos can also cause infections if the animals are contaminated with pathogenic E. coli.

Escherichia coli (E. coli)

Who to Contact

To report a complaint or adverse event (illness or serious allergic reaction), you can

Visit www.fda.gov/fcic for additional consumer and industry assistance.

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Symptoms

People infected with pathogenic E. coli can start to notice symptoms anywhere from a few days after consuming contaminated food or as much as nine days later. Generally, the symptoms include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea, fever, nausea, and/or vomiting.

The severity or presence of certain symptoms may depend on the type of pathogenic E. coli causing the infection. Some infections can cause severe bloody diarrhea and lead to life-threatening conditions, such as a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), or the development of high blood pressure, chronic kidney disease, and neurologic problems. Other infections may have no symptoms or may resolve without medical treatment within five to seven days.

Due to the range in severity of illness, people should consult their health care provider if they suspect that they have developed symptoms that resemble a(n) E. coli infection.

At-Risk Groups

People of any age can become infected with pathogenic E. coli. Children under the age of 5 years, adults older than 65, and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to develop severe illness as a result of an E. coli infection. However, even healthy older children and young adults can become seriously ill.

Foods Linked to U.S. Outbreaks of E. coli?

Different types of E. coli tend to contaminate different types of foods and water. Previous U.S. outbreaks of pathogenic E. coli have included leafy greens, sprouts, raw milk and cheeses, and raw beef and poultry.  

Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC), including E. coli O157:H7, can be particularly dangerous. The primary sources of STEC outbreaks are raw or undercooked ground meat products, raw milk and cheeses, and contaminated vegetables and sprouts.

Preventing Foodborne Illness at Home

Consumers should always practice safe food handling and preparation measures, which include the following:

  • Wash hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling raw foods.
  • Wash the inside walls and shelves of the refrigerator, cutting boards, countertops, and utensils that may have contacted contaminated foods; then sanitize them with a solution of one tablespoon of chlorine bleach to one gallon of hot water; dry with a clean cloth or paper towel that has not been previously used.
  • Wipe up spills in the refrigerator immediately and clean the refrigerator regularly.
  • Always wash hands with warm soapy water following the cleaning and sanitization process.
  • People with pets should take special care to avoid cross-contamination when preparing their pet’s food. Be sure to pick up and thoroughly wash food dishes as soon as pets are done eating, and prevent children, the elderly, and any other people with weak immune systems from handling or being exposed to the food or pets that have eaten potentially contaminated food.
  • Consumers can also submit a voluntarily report, a complaint, or adverse event (illness or serious allergic reaction) related to a food product.

Advice for Restaurants and Retailers

If there is an E. coli outbreak, retailers, restaurants, and other food service operators should not sell or serve any implicated or recalled foods – including those that may have been frozen and stored during a suspected outbreak. If you cannot determine the source of your food, do not sell or serve it.

Retailers, restaurants, and other food service operators should always take steps to avoid the cross contamination of cutting surfaces and utensils through contact with potentially contaminated products.

  • Wash hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling raw foods.
  • Wash the inside walls and shelves of the refrigerator, cutting boards and countertops, and utensils that may have contacted contaminated foods; then sanitize them with a solution of one tablespoon of chlorine bleach to one gallon of hot water; dry with a clean cloth or paper towel that has not been previously used. 
  • Wash and sanitize display cases and surfaces used to potentially store, serve, or prepare potentially contaminated foods.  
  • Wash hands with warm water and soap following the cleaning and sanitation process. 
  • Conduct regular frequent cleaning and sanitizing of cutting boards and utensils used in processing to help minimize the likelihood of cross-contamination. 

For More Information

The FDA encourages consumers with questions about food safety to Submit An Inquiry, or to visit www.fda.gov/fcic for additional information.