Stopping the spread of E. coli

The last two months have seen the rapid spread of a deadly strain of E. coli throughout Europe.   The number of people being diagnosed with E. coli has risen to over 3000, and the infection has claimed around 50 lives.  Now, food hygiene specialists are suggesting that hygiene reforms must be made to prevent a disaster like this from happening again.

Escherichia coli, known commonly as E. coli, is a bacteria found in the stomachs of humans and animals.  The type that resides our gut is usually not harmful, however the rare O104 strain discovered in Germany in May, swept across Europe producing some terrifying symptoms:

The patient develops a gastrointestinal infection which causes diarrhoea.  Their kidneys are also affected, as the bacteria release toxins which cause them damage.  Some of the patients in Hamburg clinics also suffered epileptic fits and slurred speech a few days after falling ill.  The characteristics of the strain allow it to stick to the gut very effectively, which means it can grow in the gut and remain in the system for longer.  The World Health Organisation (WHO) remark that that the strain has been discovered in humans before, but there has never been an outbreak like this.

Since May, various agencies have made accusations about who is responsible for the outbreak.  Infected cucumbers in Germany were identified as the cause, but their source was under question.  Spanish produce did come under some scrutiny, as did some British, but the most up-to date investigations point to a bean sprout farm in Uelzen, Germany.


Although finding the source of the infection is of the highest importance, to prevent it from happening again we must know how the bacteria infected people.  Any E. coli, not just the O104 strain, is associated with contaminated meat, as livestock can carry it in their gut.  Vegetable products are affected when an infected cow’s manure is used to fertilise crops; the bacteria will rest on the vegetable surface if improperly washed.

This disaster has prompted experts in food hygiene and preparation industries to give advice, suggesting changes to be made to prevent a repeat occurrence.  Patrick Wall, the former chairman of the European Food Safety Authority, argues that it takes a disaster like this to identify weaknesses in the system, and to prompt a response.

Patrick Wall names several causes of the spread of food-borne infections, such as E. coli.  These include:

Lack of knowledge and training of staff:
If staff are unaware of legislative the hygiene regulations and procedures that will stop the spread of bacteria and infection, they will be unable to follow them.  The appropriate training of the staff who prepare the food, and knowledgeable food factory cleaners, will reduce the likelihood of mistakes.

Contaminated ingredients:

The surface of raw ingredients becomes contaminated if infected manure is used as a fertilizer.  Bacteria can also reach ingredients if they are fed with infected water; the roots can draw up the bacteria, taking it within the plant.  It is important to be aware of the ways in which E. coli and other food-borne illnesses can reach your ingredients, so you know how to prevent it.  Wall suggests that you ensure that your irrigation water is clean, and that you heat your manure and compost to temperatures which kill bacteria, you can help to prevent your ingredients getting infected.


Inadequate food and hygiene facilities:
In the areas in which food is prepared, it is essential that every surface is immaculate; if bacteria remains on any surface it can contaminate ingredients and contaminate people.    Hiring a food factory cleaning contractor to take care of cleaning issues may be one way to tackle this, as they are specially trained to treat this kind of environment and up to date on all legislations.

Cross-contamination of cooked products from infected raw products:
If raw ingredients which are infected come into contact with cooked ingredients, they will contaminate them too.  Keeping cooked and raw products separate, including in packaging and transportation, is one way to prevent this.  For example, in the spread of this E. coli strain, it would only take one contaminated cucumber to contaminate a whole box.

Inadequate cooking of the ingredients:
If a raw ingredient is contaminated, the bacteria can still be killed if it is cooked to above 70 degrees Celsius.  Cooking the food at this temperature will destroy the bacteria present in the food.  If the food is not cooked properly, the harmful bacteria could still remain on the food.

Storage and refrigeration facilities:
The alleged cause of the outbreak, a German bean sprout farm, used steam drums of 38 degrees Celcius to grow the bean sprouts.  This is the ideal temperature at which bacteria breeds, experts argue.  Therefore knowledge of storage temperatures is very important.  Chilled food must be stored below five degrees Celsius, to make sure the bacteria is dormant and not being nurtured.

To consumers in Germany and the surrounding areas, the advice was to avoid eating salad products until the E. Coli source had been identified.  Now that control has been established, consumers should prioritise washing their fruit and vegetables before eating.  This may appear like obvious advice, but a simple rinse with cold water removes a large variety of bacteria from the surface.

For help with bacteria prevention and hygiene in your food factory, Newlife Cleaning Systems welcome your enquiries.  Visit or contact 0800 0189099 for more information.


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