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E. coli outbreaks: Should you be afraid?

Photo: StuartWebster via Flickr

Over the past few months, 14 people in 4 states have contracted the same E. coli strain, O145. With cases recognized between April and May across Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama and Florida, consumers may wonder, could this happen to me?

According to Craig W. Hedberg, Ph.D., a University of Minnesota professor from the Division of Environmental Health Sciences in the School of Public Health, there’s not much to fear from this outbreak. “This appears to be a regionally distributed food that hasn’t shipped to vast markets across the country.”

This particular strain of E. coli is associated with meat and poultry contamination, but these recently documented cases have been of mostly women between 20 and 60 years old, a group that is normally effected by fresh produce outbreaks.

So, what does this mean?

“The CDC has not released the source of the contamination, and though I cannot confirm, I would guess this outbreak is related to leafy greens,” said Hedberg. “That being said, it is always important to take basic precautions when handling any unprepared food.”

Ways to stay safe:
• Wash your hands after handling uncooked meat
• Wash down all counter tops following meat preparation
• Cook all meat all the way through, leaving no pink
• Wash all fruits and vegetables before serving
• Remove all damaged or bruised parts of fruit or vegetables
• Ensure kids are washing their hands when helping in the kitchen

Hedberg explained that cross-contamination is a major cause of illness, and an overall sense of caution is the safest route to take. “My advice is to assume all raw meat and produce is contaminated, which will ensure the most thorough steps are taken to guarantee a clean and healthy cooking area.”

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