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E. coli: Protecting yourself and your family from a potentially deadly bacterium

The recent Escherichia coli (E. coli) outbreak in Germany, which has sickened over 2,000 people and killed at least 22, is now being linked to contaminated bean sprouts. This outbreak is similar to one in 2006, when many people from the United States and Canada became ill and even died from eating contaminated spinach.

 What is E. coli?

E. coli is a bacterium that is found naturally in the gut of healthy animals and humans. Most types of E. coli are harmless, but some can cause serious illness or even death.

 What are the symptoms of an E. coli infection?

Some symptoms of an E. coli infection include stomach cramps, blood in stool, diarrhea, and fever.  Most people infected by E. coli recover within 7 to 10 days but can be contagious for one to two weeks after they have recovered. In severe cases, people can develop hemolytic uremic syndrome, a disease that affects the kidneys and other organs.

 What foods could contain E. coli?

All foods can become contaminated with E. coli if proper food safety measures are not followed. Meat can become contaminated with the bacterium when it is being ground and processed. Unpasteurized milk can contain E. coli since it can be passed from the cow’s udder into the milk. Vegetables can become contaminated by the bacterium when they are planted in manure-based fertilizer that has not been correctly composted or when they are sprayed or washed in contaminated water.

 How can you protect yourself and your family from an E. coli infection?

There are many things you can do to protect yourself from an E. coli infection:

  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with warm soapy water before and after handling food, using the bathroom, or changing your baby’s diaper.
  • Clean and sanitize utensils, cutting boards and countertops often.
  • Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating (even the ones you peel or those that are “prewashed”).
  • Drink only pasteurized milk, juice and cider.
  • Use a meat thermometer to ensure your meat is cooked completely. Don’t judge the doneness of meat by how it looks, because hamburger can turn brown before it has reached a safe internal temperature of 71oC (160oF).
  • Place raw meats on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator so the juices cannot drip onto other foods.
  • Have separate cutting boards for raw meat, vegetables and cooked foods.
  • Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Bacteria grows fastest in the “danger zone”, which is between 4°C and 60°C (40°F to 140°F).

For more information, visit: Gastrointestinal infections, Food Poisoning: Protecting Your Family, Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, and Hand Washing.

Ashley Murphy, MHSc (c), RD
Nutrition Communication Intern, AboutKidsHealth


Canadian Food Inspection Agency (2009). E.coli O157:H7 Food Safety Facts: Preventing Foodborne Illness. Retrieved from: