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 microbiota are 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.
Major Global Outbreaks by the Numbers
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 Death
- 2018: Ground Beef
- O26: 18 cases; 6 hospitalizations; 1 death
- Other outbreaks: SoyNut Butter (2017); Flour (2016); Sprouts (2016, 2014, 2012); Cookie Dough (2009); Hazelnuts (2011); Spinach (2012, 2006)
European Union Outbreaks
- 2014: 5900 cases (1663 Germany, 1324 UK, 919 Netherlands)
- 2015: 5929 cases (1616 Germany, 1328 UK, 858 Netherlands)
- 2016: 6389 cases (1843 Germany, 1367 UK, 665 Netherlands)
How to Prevent E.Coli
At the manufacturing level, consumer level products must reach 160 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.
The easiest way to prevent E. coli in products is by having good manufacturing practices, heating, washing hands, and testing.
Testing to ensure the final product is free of E. coli is another way to gain confidence.
Swabbing – Using swabs at the facility ensures proper sanitation processes and reduces cross contamination. Swabbing should be done on your equipment including your employees. Swabbing is a primary line of defense ensuring your zoning is functioning correctly, and the final product has less of a risk of contamination.
Water Testing – Sampling for water is easily done and may be a requirement for your facility under the new FSMA regulations. Water testing is reported in Most Probable Number (MPN) to help you quantify your level of contamination if present. If you need water sample bottles, Safe Food Alliance can provide you with the sterile bottles to sample and will have results for you in 24 to 36 hours.
Sending samples of your final product for testing– Safe Food Alliance utilizes industry-accepted methods for testing E. coli. Sending samples to one of labs gives you increased confidence that your final product may be free of E. coli. Testing is completed with fast turnaround times so you can make accurate, science-based decisions. Samples sent for testing should be well homogenized and a good representative of the lot being tested. Sample sizes vary on crop so please make sure to contact us for recommendations.
Interested in Learning More
Safe Food Alliance offers an Environmental Monitoring online course through Safe Food Academy. This short course will help you gain a better understanding of the importance of swabbing, as well as, methods on how to swab, and other important information on Environmental Monitoring.