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What to Do if You Suspect an E. coli Outbreak

Posted in E. coli on March 30, 2023

While most strains of E. coli are harmless, some can cause foodborne illness, ranging from mild to severe. Therefore, E. coli outbreaks can potentially have severe consequences, including hospitalizations and even deaths. If you suspect an E. coli outbreak, it is important to contact your local health department and healthcare provider as soon as possible. Then, get in touch with an experienced E. coli attorney to explore your legal options.

E. coli Outbreak Statistics

The number of E. coli outbreaks in the United States varies from year to year. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there are an average of 265,000 E. coli cases each year and approximately 100 deaths. About 40 percent of these infections are caused by the strain E. coli O157:H7. It is part of the shiga toxin-producing group of E. coli bacteria (STEC).


According to the CDC, three E. coli outbreak investigations were completed in 2022. However, the true number of sick people in each outbreak was likely much higher than the number reported.

  • Frozen Falafel – E. coli O121: A total of 24 people were infected from 6 states. Of those, five were hospitalized, and one developed a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).
  • Ground Beef – E. coli O157:H7: Seven people were infected from six states. Six were hospitalized.
  • Unknown Food Source – E. coli O157:H7: Although the specific ingredient that caused the outbreak could not be identified, more than 80% of the 109 who became ill reported eating at Wendy’s restaurants in several states before getting sick. Many of them ate burgers and sandwiches with romaine lettuce. Fifty-two people ended up being hospitalized, and 13 developed HUS.


Four outbreaks were investigated in 2021:

  • Packaged Salads – E. coli O157:H7: Simple Truth Organic brand and Nature’s Basket brand Organic Power Greens were responsible for 10 cases. Four people were hospitalized, and two developed HUS.
  • Baby Spinach – E. coli O157:H7: Josie’s Organics pre-packaged baby spinach with a “best by” date of October 23, 2021, made 15 people sick, of which four were hospitalized, and three developed HUS.
  • Cake mix – E. coli O121: Cake mix was the likely source of this outbreak that caused at least nine infections.
  • Unknown Food Source – E. coli O157:H7: 22 people from seven states were infected by an unknown food source. Of those, 11 were hospitalized, three developed HUS, and one died.
  • E. coli outbreaks can occur in any setting where food is prepared or served, including restaurants, schools, homes, and items bought from grocery stores. Outbreaks have been most often linked to ground beef, leafy greens, and raw milk.

Steps to Take if You Suspect an E. coli Outbreak

If you suspect that there is an E. coli outbreak, there are a few things you can do to help prevent the spread of the illness and protect yourself and others:

Report the Illness

Contact your local health department or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to report the suspected foodborne illness. This information can help public health officials conduct an investigation.

Seek Medical Attention

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps after eating, seek medical attention immediately. In severe cases, hospitalization may be necessary. Additionally, you must receive an E. coli diagnosis to link it to the outbreak once the source is identified.

Preserve Evidence

If you still have any of the food you believe made you ill, keep it refrigerated or frozen for later testing.

Cooperate with Investigators

If public health officials investigate the outbreak, cooperate with them to the best of your ability. This may involve answering questions about where you ate, what you ate, and when you became sick and providing a stool sample or medical records.

Prevent the Spread

To help prevent the spread of the illness, wash your hands frequently with soap and water, especially after using the bathroom, changing diapers, or handling food. If you are sick, avoid preparing food for others and stay home until you fully recover.

Following these steps can greatly reduce the risk of an E. coli outbreak or help contain one.