How to avoid getting sick from E. coli
Skip the whole 'adventures in food-poisoning' thing with these simple precautions.
You know what would be nice? If our food system didn’t give us food that is contaminated with invisible bits of human or animal feces. And even better if that feces didn’t harbor bacteria that makes us sick.
Yes, this is a story about Escherichia coli (DBA as E. coli) a family of bacteria found in the environment, foods, and intestines of people and animals. For the most part, these little guys are a healthy part of the intestinal tract – and microbiologists love working with affable versions of them in the lab. However, there are some rogue members of the group – namely, Shiga toxin–producing types of E. coli (STEC), which can cause a host of maladies, ranging from stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting to life-threatening complications. E. coli O157:H7, the serotype behind many of the food outbreaks we have in the United States, is one of these.
The devilish STEC live in the guts of ruminant animals, like cattle, goats, sheep, deer, and elk. According to the CDC, the major source for human illnesses is cattle. The center writes:
"Infections start when you swallow STEC – in other words, when you get tiny (usually invisible) amounts of human or animal feces in your mouth. Unfortunately, this happens more often than we would like to think about."
So how to avoid eating animals (or human) feces that is contaminated with bacteria that does not do a body good?
First of all, know that the problem is exacerbated by our food system in which “farm to table” can be an incredibly circuitous journey. In writing about the great romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak of 2018, Forbeswrites of the leafy greens: “…it was harvested, put in boxes, shipped to another facility (or multiple ones), stored under refrigeration, washed, chopped, and then packaged in bags that may include plain romaine or various salad mixes (that could contain other lettuces or vegetables grown from other farms) that contained the romaine. These are the many touch points that could be the culprit of the contamination.”
Which is why I recommend:
Getting food, whenever possible, from as close to the source as you can
If you can buy a whole head of lettuce from a farmer at a greenmarket – or best yet, grow it yourself! – think of how many of those points of potential contamination are eliminated.
The CDC goes on to explain other steps you can take to prevent illness.
Know if you are at risk of food poisoning
Some people have a higher chance of getting foodborne illness; they include pregnant women, newborns, children, older adults, and those with weak immune systems, such as people with cancer, diabetes, or HIV/AIDS. People in these groups should take extra precaution.
WASH YOUR HANDS
(Yes, I screamed that.)
• After using the bathroom
• After changing diapers
• Before preparing or eating food
• After contact with animals or their environments (at farms, petting zoos, fairs, even your own backyard)
Washing your hands also helps you avoid becoming infected with other bacteria and viruses as well. Here is the CDC method:
1. Wet your hands with warm or cold running water and apply soap. According to FDA, you should use plain soap and water—skip the antibacterial soap.
2. Rub your hands together to make a lather and scrub them well. Be sure to scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. Bacteria can hide out here too!
3. Continue rubbing hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum “Happy Birthday” from beginning to end twice.
4. Rinse your hands well under running water.
5. Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry.
Cook meats thoroughly
• Ground beef, pork, and meat that has been needle-tenderized should be cooked to a temperature of at least 160°F/70˚C.
• Beef steaks and roasts should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 145°F (62.6˚C) and allow to rest for 3 minutes after removed from the grill or stove.
• Cook ground beef and pork to a minimum internal temperature of 160°F (70˚C).
Avoid raw milk, unpasteurized dairy products, and unpasteurized juices
I know a lot of people who drink raw milk and have never had a problem; and I know I eat unpasteurized cheese and same. That said, I suspect some unpasteurized apple juice was the culprit in one particularly memorable food-poisoning event I lived through, so there's that.
Avoid ingesting water that comes from lakes, ponds, streams, swimming pools, and backyard “kiddie” pools.
Be careful in the kitchen; avoid cross contamination in food preparation areas by thoroughly washing hands, counters, cutting boards, and utensils after they touch raw meat.
Follow the four steps to food safety when preparing food
Wash fruits and vegetables well under running water
The CDC says to do this “unless the package says the contents have already been washed.” But packaged and prewashed greens have delivered plenty of foodborne illness, so wash it all regardless.
But then again...
Despite the above advice from the CDC, Consumer Reports notes that E. coli does not easily wash away from leafy greens, and just a tiny amount of the bacteria can be enough to make one sick. Which leads to the following two steps.
Cook your greens
If there has been a lettuce recall, you can cook the E. coli away. Consumer Reports writes, "The heat kills E. coli and other types of bacteria that can make you sick. Even greens that are typically consumed raw, such as romaine lettuce, can be cooked. E. coli is destroyed at about 160°F, but, unlike with meat, it’s tough to take the temperature of leafy greens." James Rogers, Ph.D., director of Food Safety and Research at the magazine says that if you cook greens until they are fully wilted, "they’re likely to have been heated enough to be safe." Think of it as sautéed greens rather than salad.
Pay attention to recalls
Food recalls make the news, pay attention to them. One year, despite widespread salmonella-tainted peanut butter news, a member of my household continued eating from our jar of peanut butter, wondering why he was having such bad digestive problems for a few weeks running. I finally made the connection when I realized the peanut butter jar was becoming emptied; but it goes to show that news of these things can seem abstract. Contaminated food can seem isolated, when in fact, our food system spreads the food far and wide, meaning that many of us may be more vulnerable than we think. Sometimes government agencies recommend avoiding certain foods altogether until the source of contamination is figured out and contained.
To keep up, check in with foodsafety.gov, which combines information from the CDC, FDA and USDA.
In the end, I don't think we should be afraid of the things we eat – but we obviously need to be smart about how we do it. And if nothing else, it all serves as a good reminder to try and divest as much as possible from industrialized food. It's a broken system that comes with a lot of convenience ... and a lot of problems.