E. Coli 101

By: Tony Flood   Date: 5/27/10

Several decades ago, the pathogen known commonly today as Escherichia coli (commonly abbreviated E. coli; named after Theodor Escherich) was relatively new to the world food safety.  It wasn't until a series of unfortunate and fatal food safety incidents that we began to more strongly recognize, address and take prudent food safety measures to reduce the risk of contamination.  Today, there are numerous test methodologies and tools available to the food industry and even consumers to reduce the risk of contamination.  But what do we actually know about this E.coli?

Well, the most common form,  which became most recognizable in food, is E.coli O157:H7.  While most strains of E.coli are actually relatively harmless to us, the O157 strain can cause serious food poisoning, especially in individuals that are immune - compromised such as older Americans.  In certain worst case scenarios, the O157 strain can actually be found in raw or undercooked ground beef, raw milk, some fresh produce, unpasteurized apple juice, alfalfa and radish sprouts. That's why it's important to always practice safe food handling especially in the home.  Always cook meat to safe internal temperatures (use a food thermometer to check); avoid cross contact; wash your hands; drink pasteurized milk and apple juice.

But what about the other forms of E.coli?

Just as there are a number of different strains of Salmonella, such as Salmonella Saintpaul, Salmonella Typhimurium, there are also a number of different strains of E.coli.  Some strains can be harmless, while others can unfortunately can be life threatening. 

Did you know that there are strains of E.coli that are part of the natural flora of our gut and that they actually produce vitamin K?  That's right, and they even prevent growth of other forms of bacteria within our intestines.

But what about the other strains of E.coli that we've been hearing about in the news lately?

The strain of E.coli that's been linked to a recent lettuce recall is known as E.coli O145.  To date, very little is known about its etiology and severity which is why it is extremely difficult to test for.  There may be even more people that have been ill with this rare type of E.coli and perhaps will never know why - it is my understanding that the testing methodologies for these rare forms of E.coli may not be widely available today.

As I mentioned earlier, even the most common form of E.coli the O157:H7 strain, was new to us several decades ago.  The fact is that even new pathogens are now beginning to present themselves in the environment and unfortunately in some foods.   We are now at the cusp of a revolution in food safety by understanding their etiology; how they develop; what testing methodologies are in place to identify them and most importantly, how to reduce any possible risk of illness.   It is likely that over the next few years we will contine to identify new strains of E.coli - some beneficial and unfortunately some that can be harmful and life threatening.  Our Federal food safety partners have initiatives in place that will address these concerns well before they become more of the norm. Until more is known, we have to continue to be diligent in our homes.

Overall, we enjoy one of the safest food supplies in the world.  However, we all share in the goal of assuring we have a safe, wholesome and nutritious food supply and our charge is to continue to practice safe food handling in our homes.