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Mystery E. coli Outbreak – Leafy Greens Again to Blame?

Posted in E. coli,Outbreaks & Recalls on February 10, 2021

On February 2nd of this year, the CDC announced an ongoing investigation of a mystery outbreak of E. coli resulting in 16 illnesses, and 5 hospitalizations spread across 5 states. Approximately 265,000 people are infected with E. coli every year, resulting in nearly 100 deaths. Unfortunately, the current outbreak has resulted in the death of one Washington resident. The investigation into this outbreak is still ongoing, and the cause is not yet known.

Fast Facts About the Latest Mystery E. coli Outbreak
  • Illnesses: 16
  • Hospitalizations: 9
  • Deaths: 1
  • States: 5
  • Recall: No
  • Investigation status: Active

Current Illnesses in the Latest Mystery E. coli Outbreak

Arkansas 6
New York 1
Oklahoma 5
Virginia 2
Washington 2

E. coli bacteria are pretty common. In fact, most E. coli can be found living in the intestines of both people and animals, and contribute to overall gut health. Unfortunately, eating or drinking food contaminated with specific types of the bacteria can result in illness. Certain strains, such as the Shiga Toxin producing E. coli, can be life threatening. Most people infected with E. coli bacteria experience symptoms such as severe stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting beginning anywhere from 3 to 4 days after ingestion. Generally, these symptoms will resolve on their own after a period of about 5 to 7 days. However, some people may develop a type of kidney failure known as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) and would need to be hospitalized.

Since 2006 there have been a handful of E. coli outbreaks each year. The illness generally tends to peak during summer months. Some wildlife, livestock, and even humans are occasional carriers of the pathogenic bacteria and can contaminate meats and food crops. The bacteria typically spread when feces come into contact with food or water.  Human carriers can spread infections when food handlers do not use proper hand washing hygiene after using the restroom, or when proper food safety regulations are not followed when storing or preparing food. Visiting petting zoos and even our beloved family pets can also be a source of infection if the animals, or their food, are contaminated with pathogenic E. coli.

Public health organizations including the CDC, FDA, the US Department of Agriculture’s Food and Safety Inspection Service, along with regulatory officials across Arkansas, New York, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Washington are investigating this most recent outbreak in an attempt to determine the source. The outbreak began on dates ranging from December 23rd 2020 to January 7th 2021. However, it can take anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks to link an illness to an outbreak, so new cases may not yet have been identified. It is believed that all of the known cases are likely related to one food source.

Different types of E. coli tend to contaminate different types of foods and water. Previous U.S. outbreaks of pathogenic E. coli have included leafy greens, sprouts, uncooked flour, raw milk and cheeses, and raw beef and poultry.  Shiga toxin-producing E. coli can be particularly dangerous. The primary sources of STEC outbreaks are raw or undercooked ground meat products, raw milk and cheeses, and contaminated vegetables and sprouts.

To prevent getting sick at home, it’s important to follow these simple steps:

  • Wash hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 minutes both before and after handling raw food and after cleaning and sanitizing work spaces that may have been contaminated.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables under warm water, unless they specify that they have already been washed.
  • To kill harmful germs, cook beef steaks and roasts to an internal temperature of at least 145°F (62.6˚C) and allow to rest for 3 minutes after you remove meat from the grill or stove. Cook ground beef and pork to a minimum internal temperature of 160°F (70˚C). Always use a food thermometer to check that the meat has reached a safe internal temperature because you can’t tell whether meat is safely cooked by looking at its color.
  • Wash the inside walls and shelves of the refrigerator, cutting boards, countertops, and utensils that may have contacted contaminated foods; then sanitize them with a solution of one tablespoon of chlorine bleach to one gallon of hot water; dry with a clean cloth or paper towel that has not been previously used.
  • Avoid raw milk, unpasteurized dairy products, and unpasteurized juices (such as fresh apple cider).
  • People with pets should take special care to avoid cross contamination when preparing their pet’s food. Be sure to pick up and thoroughly wash pet dishes as soon as they are done eating. Elderly persons, children, or other people with weakened immune systems should avoid handling their food or food dishes.
  • Don’t swallow water when swimming and when playing in lakes, ponds, streams, swimming pools, and backyard “kiddie” pools as the water may contain the bacteria.
  • Additionally, people can come in contact with E. coli bacteria when visiting petting zoos. Be sure to avoid touching your face and mouth, or putting your hands in your mouth or nose while attending a petting zoo and be sure that everyone washes their hands thoroughly upon leaving.

It’s important to know when to contact your doctor if you think you may have contracted E. coli. If you suspect you may be having a more serious reaction and you are experiencing symptoms such as bloody diarrhea, fever, seizures, symptoms of kidney failure, or confusion you should contact your doctor right away. Additionally, some people may be at higher risk of contracting a foodborne illness. Pregnant women, children and newborns, older adults, people with underlying digestive system issues, and those with weakened immune systems, such as people with cancer, diabetes, or HIV/AIDS should take extra precautions to avoid potential E. coli contamination. Don’t panic! These bacteria generally cause relatively mild illness in most healthy people. If you think you have E. coli, see your doctor and ask for a stool sample. That is the sure way to make sure that you get the treatment you need and reduce the risk of it becoming worse.

By: Michelle Galadik