Thursday, August 05, 1999

Facts about E. coli

        HOW IT SPREADS: During butchering, the bacteria can linger on the surface of the meat. Cooking steaks and roasts usually kills E. coli. Grinding beef into hamburger or patties, however, mixes the bacteria throughout the meat, giving it a place to grow. If ground beef or patties are cooked at a temperature too low to kill the bacteria, people can eat the contaminated meat and become sick.

        Contaminated human hands, cutting boards, kitchen surfaces or utensils that are not washed thoroughly can spread E. coli from one food and another food.

        E. coli can settle on fruits and vegetables that come into contact with animal manure or contaminated water.

        WHAT TO LOOK FOR: The E. coli organism gives off a poison that kills cells, causing stomach pain, vomiting, slight fever and watery diarrhea that can linger up to eight days and may turn bloody within 24 hours. Further symptoms include weakness, irritability, rapid heartbeat and breathing, pale or yellow skin and decreased urination. Severe infections can cause anemia, blood clots, coma, nerve or brain damage, especially in young children and the elderly, whose immune systems are weaker.

        • Doctors usually diagnose E. coli by testing stool samples.

        • E. coli's prevalence is not known, but federal officials estimate it sickens 21,000 people a year.

        TREATMENT: People with E. coli are urged to drink plenty of fluids and eat a bland diet. Hospitalization is necessary for severe symptoms.

        Antibiotics are sometimes prescribed to kill the bacteria.

        PREVENTION: Avoid E. coli by cooking meat thoroughly and using good hygiene.

        • Cook ground beef thoroughly to 160 degrees; use a meat thermometer to check. Meat juices should be clear, but remember that freezing, fat content and water content can obscure the color of juices.

        • Always wash hands with hot water and soap before and after handling any raw food — meat, fruits, vegetables.

        • In restaurants, order meat well done. Meat should be brown inside, not pink. Juices should not be pink or red.

        • Thaw and marinate meat in the refrigerator, not on the counter.

        • Do not allow raw or cooked food to come in contact with raw products.

        • Sanitize cutting boards and counters with a solution of 1 quart water and 1 teaspoon chlorine bleach.

        Sources: Johns Hopkins Family Health Book (Harper Resource; $49.95); U.S. Food and Drug Administration; International Food Safety Council.


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