The European E. coli Outbreak: What's Known, What to Do about It, and Helpful Resources on Food Safety

Over the past few weeks, there has been increasing attention on the current E. coli outbreak in Europe as the numbers of those affected continue to increase well into the thousands.  Questions remain about the source of this outbreak, the unfamiliar strain of E. coli (STEC O104:H4), the number and reach of those infected, and how to stop the spread of contamination and unfortunate illnesses.  While scientists from around the world work hard to answer these questions and to eliminate additional illnesses due to this E. coli outbreak, read on to learn more on how you can best protect yourself and your family.

Background:

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), incidences of illness related to this E. coli strain began in Germany as early as mid-May 2011 with an unusual number of people seeking treatment for various symptoms of enterohemorrhagic E. coli infection (EHEC).  These symptoms include bloody diarrhea and abdominal pain, as well as decreased frequency or volume of urination, constant tired feeling and loss of color to cheeks and eyelids—these are symptoms of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which can lead to kidney failure. Of note, the individuals reporting illness were mostly adult women, rather than the normal high-risk groups of young children and the elderly; however, some children have also fallen ill.  To date, the WHO confirms 22 fatalities and 2,265 confirmed infections over at least 11 different countries.  The WHO notes that while people are falling ill in many different countries, all except for one of the EHEC or HUS patients had traveled to or from Germany where they were likely exposed to the E. coli.

While medical professionals continue to treat those individuals who have fallen ill, health ministries and scientists from around the world are working to identify the mysterious source of this E. coli contamination.  German health authorities believe the source is possibly raw vegetables; however, several others have already been wrongfully implicated, taking an economic toll on the farmers and producers.  (Please follow the daily media coverage and visit government websites to keep updated on the latest health developments.)

How do I protect myself?

A foodborne illness outbreak serves as a reminder that everyone should follow the basic food safety practices when preparing and consuming food: clean, separate, cook and chill.
In addition to cleaning, separating, cooking and chilling, German health authorities continue to recommend that people in Germany, particularly Northern Germany, avoid eating raw tomatoes, fresh cucumbers, and leafy salads until further notice.  People who have traveled to or from Germany in recent weeks should immediately seek medical attention if they develop bloody diarrhea, stomach cramps or any of the symptoms of HUS—and be sure to notify your health care provider of any recent travel to the affected regions in Germany.

Putting Risk in Perspective:  Here’s what you Need to Know:

  • The incidences of illness have occurred among individuals who live in or have recently traveled to the northern part of Germany.
  • There is currently no indication that the source of infection has spread to other countries.
  • The U.S. FDA is currently conducting increased surveillance of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and raw salads, as well as sprouts and sprout seeds from areas of concern.

According to the FDA, “This outbreak has not affected the United States. Produce remains safe and there is no reason for Americans to alter where they shop, what they buy or what they eat. In general, consumers can also help to protect themselves by taking some basic steps to prevent the spread of foodborne disease.”

Follow these easy steps to reduce the risk of any contamination:

  • When preparing any fresh produce, begin with clean hands.
  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap before and after preparation.
  • Wash the produce under running water just before preparing or eating.
  • This includes produce grown conventionally or organically at home, or produce that is purchased from a grocery store or farmer's market.
  • Proper storage of fresh produce can affect both quality and safety.
  • Certain perishable fresh fruits and vegetables (like strawberries, lettuce, herbs, and mushrooms) can be best maintained by storing in a clean refrigerator at a temperature of 40° F or below. If you're not sure whether an item should be refrigerated to maintain quality, ask your grocer.
  • All produce that is purchased pre-cut or peeled should be refrigerated to maintain both quality and safety.

Additional Resources on Food Safety