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A Canadian food safety expert says she's not surprised by how quickly the E. coli outbreak in the United States has spread.
The outbreak, which has been linked to Wendy’s fast food restaurants, has caused 97 illnesses and has spread to six states. There is no official source of the contamination yet, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that affected individuals ate sandwiches with romaine lettuce.
Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria is typically found in the intestines of animals and humans. Most strains of E. coli are not dangerous, but certain ones can cause a person to get sick.
While lettuce has been a common food associated with E. coli outbreaks in recent years, other foods can be affected by the bacteria. Read on for the seven foods commonly linked to E. coli and food poisoning.
Most common foods linked to E. coli
1. Raw meat
Experts say one of the most common foods that can be contaminated with E. coli is ground beef. However, it can affect other types of meat as well.
Siyun Wang, an Associate Professor of Food Safety Engineering at the University of British Columbia, says that cooking meat thoroughly before eating it is essential.
“Raw beef is still one of the riskiest products in terms of E. coli contaminations, but [many] people have learned to cook it properly so that's why we're not seeing as many outbreaks associated with ground beef anymore,” Wang adds.
2. Leafy greens
Lettuce is a vegetable that has been linked to a growing number of outbreaks in North America. The leafy green vegetable can become contaminated with E. coli in the field by soil, water, animals or improperly composted manure. It can even become contaminated after its harvest or in the grocery store.
Wang says we’re seeing outbreaks linked to leafy greens because there's typically no cooking involved with this vegetable.
The food safety expert recommends washing lettuce under running water for an extended amount of time to clean it properly.
Sprouts, like alfalfa and mung bean sprouts, can get contaminated with E. coli in the environment, during packaging or during preparation.
Health Canada recommends only buying refrigerated sprouts, not buying sprouts if they look dark or smell musty, and cooking sprouts before eating them.
4. Unpasteurized milk
E. coli can also affect unpasteurized milk. This happens when the bacteria spreads from the cow’s udders to its milk.
Experts recommend checking the label of the milk you’re buying to ensure it says “pasteurized," which means the milk has been heated to destroy bacteria.
5. Unpasteurized cheese
Cheese can be another concern when it comes to E. coli.
“Cheesemakers have to follow a very strict process in terms of aging the cheese and that's why we won't find raw milk cheese or soft cheese in Canada outside of Quebec,” Wang explains. “The aging process does not 100 percent kill E. coli O57 according to some studies. That's why occasionally we will see E. coli cases.”
6. Unpasteurized juice and cider
Unpasteurized fruit juices and ciders are also at risk of becoming contaminated with viruses and bacteria. Fruits used to make these types of beverages can get contaminated at the farm they are grown on, while they’re being picked and processed, or while they are being transported.
Flour is another raw food that can become contaminated with E. coli. Since flour comes from grain grown in fields, the grain may get contaminated with bacteria through the soil, water, or animal waste. It’s advised to cook food with flour before eating it and wash your hands after handling flour.
Even if you don’t show symptoms, you can still spread E. coli
Someone who has been infected with E. coli can experience symptoms between one to 10 days after contact with the bacteria, including nausea, vomiting, mild fever and diarrhea.
How to prevent getting sick from E. coli
Cook food to a safe internal temperature: A meat thermometer is a helpful tool to have on hand when cooking meat to ensure it’s cooked properly and safe to eat.
Wash raw fruits and vegetables: Thoroughly wash your produce under running water to remove bacteria before eating it.
Wash your hands after handling food: It’s always a good idea to wash your hands before and after preparing meals to ensure no contamination happens.
Watch for recalls: If you have a recalled product at home, it’s best to return it or throw it out to prevent any possible illnesses.