Our food supply in Canada is generally very safe, but sometimes the food we eat may carry bacteria that can make us sick, like Escherichia coli O157:H7, which is commonly called E. coli.
What is E. coli?
Escherichia coli (E. coli) are bacteria that live naturally in the intestines of cattle, poultry and other animals. Most E. coli are harmless to humans, but some varieties carry genes that allow them to cause disease.
The bacteria can be transferred to the outer surface of meat during butchering. Processing can then spread the bacteria throughout the meat. Raw fruits and vegetables can also become contaminated with E.coli while in the field, through improperly composted manure, contaminated water, wildlife and contaminated harvesters.
If you eat undercooked ground beef or other foods contaminated with E. coli, you can become ill. While most people experience a few days of upset stomach and then recover fully, E. coli infections can sometimes be life threatening.
How do people get sick?
Did you know?
Intestinal illness can be caused by viruses, bacteria or parasites, and usually involves vomiting and diarrhea. People often call it the flu, though it is in no way related to the influenza virus, which causes respiratory illness.
Both animals and people can be carriers of E. coli without showing signs of illness. They can then spread the bacteria to foods, surfaces or other people. Food can become contaminated with E. coli during butchering, when food is handled by a person infected with E. coli, or from cross-contamination when raw foods are handled improperly.
Two of the most common ways to come into contact with E. coli are by improperly handling raw ground meat and by eating ground meat that is undercooked.
You can be exposed to this type of E.coli by eating or drinking:
- raw and undercooked meat, especially ground beef
- contaminated raw fruits and vegetables, including sprouts
- untreated water
- unpasteurized (raw) milk and (raw) milk products, including raw milk cheese
- unpasteurized apple juice/cider
Finally, you can be infected with E. coli through contact with the feces (stool) of infected people or with cattle or other farm animals (including at petting zoos and fairs).
You cannot tell the difference between contaminated and non-contaminated food by the way it looks, smells, or tastes. Safe food handling and cooking practices are key to preventing foodborne illness.
What are the symptoms and treatment?
People infected with E. coli can have a wide range of symptoms. Some do not get sick at all, though they can still spread the infection to others. Others feel as though they have a bad case of upset stomach. Still others become seriously ill and must be hospitalized.
The following symptoms can appear within one to ten days after contact with the bacteria:
- severe stomach cramps
- watery or bloody diarrhea
- little or no fever
Most symptoms clear up within five to ten days. But some people who are infected with E. coli develop life-threatening symptoms, including kidney failure, seizures and stroke. While most will recover completely, others may suffer permanent health effects, like kidney damage, and some may die.
Although anyone can get an E. coli infection, pregnant women, people with compromised immune systems, young children and older adults are most at risk for developing serious complications.
There is no real treatment for E. coli infections, other than monitoring the illness, providing comfort, and preventing dehydration through proper hydration and nutrition. People who develop complications may need further treatment, like dialysis for kidney failure. You should contact your health care provider if symptoms persist.
How do I avoid getting sick?
Food safety tip
Because ground beef can turn brown before disease-causing bacteria are killed, use a digital food thermometer to make sure you cook hamburger to an internal temperature of at least 71°C (160°F).
Foods contaminated with E. coli look, smell and taste normal. The good news is, E. coli and many other harmful bacteria can be killed by cooking food properly.
These tips will help protect you and your family from E. coli:
- Cook food to a safe internal temperature using a digital thermometer.
- Do not eat hamburger patties that are pink in the middle. If served an undercooked hamburger, send it back for further cooking. Ask for a new bun and a clean plate, too.
- Avoid spreading harmful bacteria. Keep raw meat separate from ready-to-eat foods. Wash hands, counters, and utensils with hot soapy water after they have come in contact with raw meat. Never place cooked hamburgers on the unwashed plate that held raw patties. Wash thermometers in between testing patties.
- Eat and drink only pasteurized juice, cider, milk and milk products.
- Drink water from a safe (treated or boiled) supply.
- Wash your hands thoroughly before preparing or eating food.
- Wash raw fruits and vegetables thoroughly with clean, safe running water before you prepare and eat them. Use a brush to scrub produce with firm or rough surfaces, like oranges, cantaloupes, potatoes and carrots.
- Wash your hands after contact with animals (at home, farms, petting zoos and fairs).
- Keep pets away from food storage and preparation areas.
- If you think you are infected with E. coli bacteria or any other gastrointestinal illness, do not prepare food for other people.
Also, these safe food practices will reduce your risk of contracting E. coli disease and other foodborne illnesses.
Food safety tip
Pasteurization destroys E. coli O157:H7 and other harmful bacteria. Food safety experts don't recommend unpasteurized products, particularly for young children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.
What does the Government do to protect me?
In Canada, several government organizations work together every day to keep your food safe:
- Health Canada makes food safety standards and policies to help minimize the risk of foodborne illnesses.
- The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) enforces these policies and standards and carries out inspections to make sure the food industry meets its food safety responsibilities. The CFIA works with Health Canada to make sure that foodborne illness is detected early and warnings go out to the public quickly.
- The Public Health Agency of Canada studies the incidence and causes of diseases in Canada, conducts outbreak surveillance, and coordinates outbreak response.
The Government of Canada works very hard to protect your health and safety:
- We are carrying out a five-year Food and Consumer Safety Action Plan, to strengthen and modernize Canada's safety system and make sure you can have confidence in the quality and safety of the food, health and consumer products you buy.
- We are investing $75 million more in Canada's food safety system (on top of the $113 million committed in 2008) to hire more inspectors, update lab technology, and improve communication with Canadians.
- We support and participate in public awareness campaigns about safe food practices, like the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education's Be Food Safe program, which encourages Canadian consumers to think of food safety at every step of the food handling process, from shopping for groceries to re-heating leftovers.