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E. coli in California and Prevention Tips for Food Handlers

What is E coli?

E. coli bacteriaE. coli stands for Escherichia coli, a bacteria with a bad reputation—and for good reason. There are thousands of different kinds, or strains, of E. coli. Some strains are harmless or even helpful, but others are bad news. The bad strains produce Shiga toxins similar to those created by Shigella that cause severe food poisoning. Every year, Shiga-producing E. coli infect 265,000 people in the U.S., causing foodborne illness, hospitalizations, and even death.

Symptoms of E. coli infection

The first symptoms of E. coli infection are abdominal pain and cramping. This is usually followed by diarrhea that can become bloody. Some kinds of E. coli also cause fever and nausea. Symptoms normally start small and get progressively worse over a few days. Depending on the strain, symptoms can clear up quickly or can last as long as 10 days.

If symptoms last for longer than seven days, things become more dangerous. Infected individuals can develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). This condition damages red blood cells and can lead to kidney failure. About 10% of those with E. coli infection will develop HUS. This condition is dangerous for anyone, but especially for individuals with a weakened immune system, like children and the elderly.

Romaine lettuce E coli outbreaks in California

E. coli has been in the news a lot since two major outbreaks last year. The first outbreak occurred between April and June 2018. It affected 210 people in 36 different states, including 49 people in California. One person in California died. The second outbreak, which took place between October 2018 and January 2019, infected 62 people in 16 different states, including 12 cases in California.

In both cases, health officials traced the source of the E. coli infections back to packages of romaine lettuce. The sources of lettuce were different for each outbreak—the lettuce involved in the first outbreak was grown in Yuma, Arizona, while the lettuce responsible for the second outbreak was grown in Santa Barbara, California. Both times, the lettuce appeared to have been contaminated by the water supply used to grow it.

Unfortunately, the outbreaks last year were only the latest events in a history of problems. According to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), Shiga toxin-producing E. coli outbreaks were linked to leafy greens 28 times between 2009 and 2017. On average, that’s more than three outbreaks per year!

Preventing E coli

New, stricter water use rules for manufacturers

Leafy greensBecause lettuce and other leafy greens aren’t usually cooked before they’re eaten, they carry a higher risk of spreading foodborne illness. In a letter to agriculture officials in Arizona and California and the leafy greens industry, the FDA recommended that leafy greens growers, packers, and shippers tighten their safety regulations to help prevent future contamination.

In response, the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA) voted to strengthen testing standards for both surface water and groundwater. The new standards require growers to test their water three times a month. If the tests detect more than 10 parts per million of E. coli in the water, growers must treat it. In addition, growers can no longer use untreated water for overhead irrigation within 21 days prior to harvesting leafy greens.

E coli prevention tips for food handlers

As growers work to prevent E. coli contamination at the source, food handlers still need to be careful to prevent contamination during preparation. E. coli bacteria can thrive not only in leafy greens, but also in meat—especially ground beef.

You can prevent E. coli from growing to unsafe levels by following these four tips:

  1. Take the temperature. Cook meat until it reaches a safe cooking temperature for at least 15 seconds. For ground beef, this temperature is 155°F. You can ensure food has reached a safe temperature by using a food thermometer to take the internal temperature of the thickest part of the food.
  2. Choose pasteurized foods. Unpasteurized milk and fruit juice can contain dangerous amounts of E. coli. To be safe, choose pasteurized varieties instead.
  3. Avoid cross-contamination. Clean and sanitize the surfaces where you work in the kitchen, especially after you prepare raw animal products. If you wear gloves, wash your hands and put on a new pair of gloves before you work with a different food. Wash your hands before you eat or prepare foods, especially if you’ve been around farm animals.
  4. Wash leafy greens. Washing vegetables is always a good idea, but it’s especially smart for leafy greens. This precaution may not completely get rid of bacteria, but it sure helps.

Learn more tips for preventing cross-contamination in our California food handler training.

How do I get a California food handlers card?

You can get your California food handlers card after you take the food handler training and test. Food handler training is available in a variety of formats. Some health departments offer in-person classes. Your employer may even have their own internal training. StateFoodSafety offers food handler training online.

When you purchase our California food handler course, you can take it anytime or anywhere. After you pass the test, you can download your food handler card and print it right away.

Feel free to reach out to us at (801) 494-1416 or if you have any questions.

— Suzie Sandridge and Jessica Pettit

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