How to Avoid E. Coli This Summer
A new report from the CDC finds outbreaks peak between July and September
I prefer a nice spice-rubbed flank steak to a burger, and after reading a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), I’m glad.
The report summarized outbreaks of Escherichia coli infections between 2003 and 2012. E. coli is a bacterium with many strains, at least one of which, E. coli O157, can make you seriously ill or worse. It’s especially dangerous in young kids, older people, pregnant women and people who have a weakened immune system.
You can get it from contaminated food or bottled water but also from tap water or even the water you accidentally swallow at the pool or splash park. Touching animals can also land you an infection. (Think twice before letting your child stroke or kiss the cute goats or sheep at the petting zoo, or at least make sure they wash their hands as soon as possible afterward.)
Between 2003 and 2012, the CDC found there were 390 outbreaks of E. coli O157 involving 4,928 illnesses. More than a thousand people were hospitalized, and 33 people died.
Nearly half the outbreaks happened between July and September. Why? The CDC gives one possible explanation: “Cattle [the most common reservoir for E. coli O157] shed the largest number of E. coli O157 organisms in their feces during summer months, coinciding with a higher prevalence of E. coli O157 on hides in processing plants.”
Related: 8 Tips For Healthy Barbecuing
Some interesting tidbits from the report:
Burgers take the prize: According to the report, “Ground beef is the most frequently identified vehicle of transmission to humans.” Of the outbreaks caused by a known specific food, by far the most were caused by beef, specifically, ground beef and mechanically tenderized steak.
Why is ground beef such a problem? Beef most often becomes contaminated during slaughter and meat processing by coming into contact with hides that harbor feces. “Grinding can spread contamination through vast amounts of ground beef,” says the CDC. Mechanically tenderizing steaks also brings bacteria from the surface into the meat. “Clearly labeling mechanically tenderized beef might help consumers make safer choices,” says the CDC.
Suspect spinach in fall: Outbreaks caused by E. coli in leafy vegetables were more common in fall. This “could be the result of summertime application to seedlings of irrigation water, soil amendments, or fertilizers that might contain more E. coli O157 organisms than other seasons,” writes the CDC. “Therefore, leafy vegetables harvested during fall might be more likely to become contaminated than those grown at other times.”
Swim at your own risk: The highest number of waterborne E. coli outbreaks occurred in states bordering the Mississippi River, with most caused by recreational water. One possible reason: Cows abound in the Midwest.
Raw milk is a raw deal: In all 16 outbreaks attributed to dairy, unpasteurized dairy products were the culprits.
Playing it safe
I’m going to stick with steak instead of burgers, but if you prefer burgers, make sure you cook them to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F. Note that color is an unreliable indicator of whether or not a burger’s done.
Be careful when buying meat. Put it in a plastic bag so it doesn’t drip on and potentially contaminate other foods in your shopping cart or grocery bag. Speaking of grocery bags, you need to wash that reusable grocery bag regularly.
Once you get the meat home, put it on the bottom shelf of the fridge so it won’t drip on anything beneath it. And use a separate cutting board for meats and other foods.
Another hint: Think about washing your kitchen towel more often. When University of Arizona germ researchers analyzed kitchen towels collected from homes in five major cities, they found that about a quarter of them harbored E. coli.
For what it’s worth, I also skip drinking water on an airplane unless it’s bottled.
At the pool and even in lakes, avoid swallowing the water.
Even if you’re seriously addicted to your cell phone, put it down before you enter the loo. One in six cell phones tested in a 2011 study had microscopic bits of fecal material clinging to them, according to researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. For a cleaner phone, consider investing in a phone sanitizer that kills germs with UV light (models cost about $90).
And of course, always wash your hands after using the bathroom and before and after preparing food.
Symptoms of an E. coli infection include bloody diarrhea, severe stomach cramps, and vomiting. Call your doctor right away.