What is E.coli?
Tammy Roberts, MS, RD, LD,
Health Education Specialist in
Barton County, University of Missouri Extension
Escherichia coli or E. coli is a bacterium that has been in the news a lot for the foodborne illness that it has caused. More recently we have heard on the news that E. coli has been found at levels that are too high in some of our lakes, rivers and streams. It’s easy to wonder if it is the same E. coli and what the difference is if it is in our streams versus in our food. Bottom line is that both can cause illness if ingested.
Humans and animals all have E. coli in their digestive tracts that help with body processes. E.coli O157:H7 is found in the intestines of animals and is the strain that can damage the lining of your intestines and kidneys. Bloody diarrhea is one sign of this disease. Children, elderly and people with weak immune systems are especially vulnerable to disease from this strain of E. coli. There are two other types of E. coli that cause diarrhea that can last up to two weeks.
We have already established that E. coli is found in the digestive tracts of humans and animals. When we are infected with the E. coli bacteria, it is because of fecal contamination of the water or food. In the case of the ground beef that had E. coli, it was contaminated during the slaughtering and grinding process. The waterways that have been affected were most likely impacted by rains that washed fecal matter into the creeks, rivers or streams. It is important to not swim in these waterways while the E. coli count is high because you can ingest the bacteria. Your public water supply is treated to prevent E. coli contamination.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers
the following precautions to prevent E. coli infection:
- Don’t swallow lake or pool water when swimming
- Cook ground beef to 165 degrees and avoid unpasteurized milk
- Persons with diarrhea should wash hands thoroughly after bowel movements
- Persons changing diapers should always wash hands thoroughly
- Keep raw meat separate from ready-to-eat foods as the juices can contaminate
- Drink only pasteurized milk, juice and cider
- Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly
According to the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that 76 million people have foodborne illness each year in the United States. Proper handling of food and hand washing are important first steps to prevention.