Protecting yourself from E. coli and other foodborne illness – National Consumers League

By Alex Schneider, NCL Public Policy Intern

Alex Schneider, a public policy intern at NCL this summer, is a rising senior at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, where he is studying politics, economics, and journalism.  At Brandeis, Alex is the Editor-in-Chief of the weekly campus newspaper, The Brandeis Hoot, and an active participant in the Mock Trial program.  His internship is made possible by the Louis D. Brandeis Legacy Fund for Social Justice at Brandeis.

With the cause still unknown of the recent E. coli outbreak in Germany that has claimed 24 lives, U.S. travelers to Europe should be cautious and follow guidelines currently set by the CDC and German authorities regarding what food items to avoid. At the same time, the outbreak serves as a reminder to the U.S. food industry and consumers that basic guidelines can help prevent a similar epidemic this side of the Atlantic.

U.S. travelers in Europe

As advised by the Robert Koch Institute in Germany, travelers and locals should refrain from eating raw cucumbers, tomatoes, sprouts, and lettuce, especially when they are from Northern Germany.  While thoroughly washed and cooked vegetables, pre-cooked vegetables, and canned vegetables are generally safer than raw vegetables, travelers should still avoid at-risk produce as the source of the outbreak is still unknown.  Importantly, travelers who have symptoms consistent with E. coli poisoning, including bloody diarrhea or severe cramps, should see a doctor.

Risks revealed

As reported by Reuters, women aged 20-50 have been particularly affected by the recent E. coli outbreak, owing in no small measure to their typical diet that includes raw vegetables popularly considered healthy, such as bean sprouts, which German officials now believe to be contaminated.

The CDC highlighted bean sprouts in 1999 for their potential harm, likened by one professor of bacteriology cited in Britain’s The Guardian as “in the same category as oysters.”  Professor Hugh Pennington explained: “People like them and you eat them raw, but you should know that you’re running a bit of a risk.”

The reason?  Bean sprouts are grown in warm water where bacteria can thrive.  Experts say young children and the elderly should not consume raw bean sprouts at all times due to these risks, and for everyone else, avoiding raw sprouts altogether is the best way to avoid possible contamination.

Industry practices

Germany’s E. coli outbreak has highlighted the importance of adhering to widely agreed best practices in dealing with potential food hazards.  E. coli bacteria may grow when produce comes into contact with feces at some stage of gardening; for this reason, livestock should be positioned away from areas where vegetables are grown.  Water used should be potable, should not be surface water (which can be contaminated) and should be tested regularly.

Also, produce labeling should be clear to consumers, in keeping with guidelines set out by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).  This way, when recalls are announced, consumers can check product batch numbers to be clear about the safety of the goods they have purchased.

Not all bad news

The failure of German authorities to discover the source of the outbreak may appear alarming, but U.S. consumers should know that procedures currently in place make prolonged investigations, such as the one taking place now, less likely.  The CDC runs a national registry that logs suspicious gastrointestinal infections ensuring the government is ready in cases of an outbreak.  This system keeps officials on alert, which is necessary in today’s world when prompt responses can prevent deaths.  Consumers should follow CDC alerts when they become available to best protect themselves.

Tips to prevent illness

Outbreaks shouldn’t be the only time consumers act to protect themselves against food borne illness.  Thoroughly cooking your food, especially meat and vegetable products, is the best way to protect against E. coli and other infections.  Meat should be cooked to at least 160 degrees according to the CDC.  Washing and scrubbing vegetables also helps rid them of remnants of contaminants.  To prevent cross-contamination of meat and other products, clean dishes and utensils during food preparation.

And of course, don’t forget to wash your hands before preparing food, after using the bathroom, and when coming into contact with animals.  Simple hygiene can go a long way in keeping you safe.