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 98.6°F (37°C) to 120°F (48.8°C) (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 ( 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 pathogenic E.coli is E. coli O:157 H:7, a strain of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC); this group often connected to food or water contamination. It is the one most commonly reported in the news in association with foodborne outbreaks. It is important to note that there are other STEC 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, E.coli O157:H7 causing 95,400 of them.
- 2018: Romaine Lettuce and other Leafy Greens
- E.coli O157:H7: 235 cases; 130 Hospitalizations; 6 Death
- 2018: Ground Beef
- E.coli 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 °F (71°C) 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 your facility.
The easiest way to prevent E. coli in products is by having good manufacturing practices, heating, washing hands, and testing.
Testing final product for E. coli is another way to gain confidence.
Environmental monitoring can be defined as testing the processing environment for contaminants. The objective of the program can vary from pathogen detection, sanitation process Swabbing your facility can provide meaningful data to verify your sanitation processes and identify areas of possible cross contamination and risk. Environmental Monitoring swabbing can be performed on your equipment including forklifts and conveyors. Swabbing your facility can be a primary line of defense safeguarding you and your company. The application of appropriate swabbing zones and sampling techniques should be deployed to ensure it is functioning correctly, and the final product has less of a risk of contamination.
Sampling for water is easily done and may be a requirement for you under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) regulations. FSMA compliant water testing requires you to quantify the contamination level. These results can be reported in Most Probable Number (MPN) or Colony Forming Units (CFU) to help you quantify the level of contamination. If you are interested in water testing, reach out to Safe Food Alliance and we can provide you with the appropriate sampling containers, sampling instructions, and answer any of your questions.
Sending Samples of Your Final Product For Testing
Safe Food Alliance utilizes industry-accepted methods for testing E. coli. Testing is completed with fast turnaround times so you can make accurate, science-based decisions. Product sent for testing should be well homogenized and be a good representation of the overall lot size. Be sure to follow your food safety program protocols; If you need help developing this for your food safety program, please contact us.
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.