Published on February 19, 2016

When the food you love becomes a health risk

When the food you love becomes a health risk

Chipotle restaurant chain learned the hard way that enteropathogenic E. coli spells financial disaster. After outbreaks of the infection reported in many states, including Massachusetts, the Mexican restaurant’s stock price plummeted, while federal and state officials proceeded with epidemiological investigations and potential legal action.

While many customers avoided Chipotle during the crisis, enteropathogenic E. coli lurks virtually anywhere.

“The headlines were a powerful warning to everyone that they should always take precautions to protect themselves from enteropathogenic E. coli and other bacterial infection,” said Patricia Phelan, Microbiology Supervisor at Cape Cod Healthcare.

“Foods that we love and depend on can become health risks. While a restaurant may fail to prevent contamination with enteropathogenic E. coli, every one of us has the capacity to protect ourselves and our families at home,” she emphasized.

It begins with very carefully cleaning your hands even before you wash your utensils and fresh produce. It continues with carefully cooking meats and making sure what you drink is properly pasteurized.

But before you can adequately protect yourself, you need to understand what enteropathogenic E. coli is and how dangerous it can be.

Enteropathogenic Escherichia coli are a large and diverse group of bacteria.

“We carry most strains as normal flora in our gastrointestinal tract, genital tract and respiratory tract, and these can cause infection under certain conditions,” said Kathryn Mullin, Cape Cod Healthcare microbiologist. “Enteropathogenic E. coli enters the GI tract from food or drink and causes disease by producing a dangerous toxin.”

People of any age can become infected. Very young children and the elderly are more likely to develop severe illness, but even healthy older children and young adults can become seriously ill within three to four days of exposure. In some cases, however, infection can be within a single day or as long as 10 days. While rarely fatal, failure to treat enteropathogenic E. coli infections can cause death.

If you do contract diarrhea that lasts for more than three days, or it is accompanied by high fever, blood in the stool or so much vomiting that you cannot keep liquids down and you pass very little urine, you must seek immediate medical attention, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) encourages consumers with questions about food safety to call 1-888-SAFEFOOD Monday through Friday between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Eastern time, or to consult the FDA website.

There are many specific steps you can take to prevent enteropathogenic E. coli, emphasized Phelan and Mullin, whose microbiology laboratory at Cape Cod Hospital identifies and helps diagnose infections in patients.

Begin by cleaning your hands

  • Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. Microbes are present on all surfaces of the hand, often in particularly high concentration under the nails, so the entire hand should be scrubbed.
  • Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice. Dry your hands using a clean paper towel. Germs can be transferred more easily to and from wet hands; therefore, hands should be dried after washing.

Be sure to cook all meats to proper temperatures.

It is best to use a meat thermometer and be sure that it reaches 160 degrees Fahrenheit at its thickest point.

If a restaurant serves you an under-cooked hamburger, send it back for more cooking. Ask for a new bun and a clean plate, too.

Pay special attention to fresh produce.

The CDC instructs that you wash raw produce thoroughly. This may not necessarily get rid of all enteropathogenic E. coli — especially in leafy greens, which provide many spots for the bacteria to attach themselves to. But, careful rinsing can remove dirt and reduce the amount of bacteria that may be clinging to the produce.

Avoid cross-contamination.

  • Keep raw foods separate. This includes using separate cutting boards for raw meat and foods, such as vegetables and fruits.
  • Wash utensils, countertops, cutting boards and any other surfaces that come into contact with fresh produce or meat.