The impact of an E. coli outbreak is far-reaching. It spreads through the entire supply chain, leaving consumers, farmers, and retailers in a bind. Losing 45% of your sales overnight is a massive loss to any industry. This is what happened in 2018 regarding the E. coli outbreaks in romaine. Struggling to boost consumer confidence to have another outbreak and lose another 20% of the market is just one example of how much an E. coli outbreak can cost an industry. These outbreaks don’t just happen in the United States. As food scientists are more critical of the food consumers eat, outbreaks have gained attention around the globe. Learning to prevent E. coli is the foundation food producers must now think about to avoid costly repercussions.
It’s all history!
Escherichia coli (E. coli) was first discovered in 1885 by German pediatrician Theodor Echerich. Since then, E.coli has become the most understood bacteria to the scientific community, because of its role in disease, and its ability to double its population every 20 minutes.
What you should know about E.coli
- E. coli is a facultative anaerobe (it can survive with or without oxygen).
- E. coli survives best in temperatures of 98.6F to 120F (body temperatures), and some strains can move.
- Most strains of E. coli are harmless and live inside the large intestines.
- E. coli helps protect from harmful organisms, provides essential vitamins, and helps break down food.
- One estimation is that 0.1% of your body is made up of E. coli (~7,000,000 cells).
Why is E.Coli Important?
E. coli is classified into six major groups based on virulence properties (aka how likely it is to harm humans). These groups may produce toxins. There are two methods to become ill with the toxins; ingesting the toxin itself (intoxication) or ingesting the bacteria which then produces the toxin. The most common E.coli pathogen is E. coli O:157 H:7, a strain of the group EHEC often connected to food or water contamination. E.coli 0157 is a Shiga toxin or STEC; this pathotype is the one most commonly heard about in the news in association with foodborne outbreaks. It is important to note that there are other strains such as E. coli O145 and E. coli O121:H19 which produce a Shiga toxin as well.
Outbreaks in the United States
From 1998 to 2007, 69% of all E. coli outbreaks traced back to food contamination, 18% from water, and 14% from animals or person to person. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate about 265,000 E. coli infections happen a year, O157:H7 causing 95,400 of them.
- 2018: Romaine Lettuce and other Leafy Greens
- O157:H7: 235 cases; 130 Hospitalizations; 6 Deaths
- O26: 18 cases; 6 hospitalizations; 1 death
How to Prevent E.Coli
At the manufacturing level, consumer level products must reach 155 degrees Fahrenheit to eliminate E. coli. This method is an effective form of prevention because E. coli can’t survive at high temperatures. Many companies use pasteurization which reduces bacterial loads if done correctly. It is essential to have validated and verified pasteurization procedures for each commodity.