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Food Safety Focus (60th Issue, July 2011) – Food Incident Highlight

Outbreaks of Enterohaemorrhagic E. coli Infection in Germany and France

In May and June 2011, outbreaks of enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) infection occurred in Germany and France causing severe illness and some deaths. Investigations in Germany showed that sprouted seeds/beans were the likely vehicles for the infection.

EHEC is a pathogenic subset of E. coli bacteria which can cause bloody diarrhoea in infected individuals and in some cases haemolytic uraemic syndrome, a serious complication which can be fatal after causing kidney damage. EHEC can be spread through consumption of contaminated water and food. Moreover, person-to-person transmission of this pathogen is possible through faecal-oral route. EHEC types that have been associated with human outbreaks include the predominant O157:H7 and the rarer O104:H4 incriminated in this outbreak.

EHEC is mainly present in intestines of animals, especially ruminants, and can be found in contaminated beef and dairy products such as minced beef, unpasteurised milk and cheese. Consumption of contaminated water and foods including contaminated fruits and vegetables can also cause infections. As E. coli bacteria can be killed by cooking, thorough cooking can reduce food safety risk.

Fresh fruits and vegetables should be washed thoroughly in clean running water. For firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers, the surface should be scrubbed with a clean produce brush. It is recommended to cook sprouts thoroughly before consumption since sprouts of any kind are grown in warm and humid conditions which are also favourable for the growth of microorganisms. The public is advised to cook all ground beef and hamburgers thoroughly until the cooked meat is brown throughout and the juices run clear.

People should always follow food hygiene measures: washing their hands with soap and water before handling food and after using the toilet, keeping raw and cooked foods separate. Food handlers should suspend from handling food when suffering or suspected to be suffering from an infectious disease or gastro-intestinal disturbances.