E.coli O157 & Haemolytic Uraemic Syndrome

Public warned after end of E.coli outbreak in Britain

4th October 2011

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has revised its consumer advice on the consumption of sprouts and sprouting seeds.

Following the E.coli outbreak in France and Germany earlier this year, the EC has informed EFSA that the EU member states have now completed tracing activities across the food chain.

With the removal from the market in all member states of the most likely source of the contaminated food, a specific lot of fenugreek seeds from Egypt, coupled with on-going importation restrictions, the authority is no longer advising consumers not to grow sprouts for their own consumption and also not to eat sprouts or sprouted seeds unless they have been cooked thoroughly.

EFSA recommends that consumers refer to national food safety agencies for any specific advice regarding sprout consumption.

The authority takes this opportunity to remind consumers of the importance of good hygiene practices when preparing and consuming fresh vegetables, such as washing hands before food preparation, washing food properly under running potable water and separating raw foods from ready-to-eat or cooked foods.

An outbreak of an E.coli O157 emerged across Britain in December 2010, and cases continued to emerge until July of this year, but only now at the end of September 2011 when the outbreak appears to have come to an end, has the public been told.

The Health Protection Agency (HPA), Health Protection Scotland and Public Health Wales received reports of 250 cases of infection with a particular subtype of E. coli.O157 known as Phage Type 8 (PT8) distributed across England, Scotland and Wales. The majority of these cases were mild to moderate but 74 people were assessed in hospital. Four developed Haemolytic Uraemic Syndrome (HUS) and one patient with underlying health problems died.

This outbreak was not related to the outbreaks in Germany or France earlier this year which were caused by a different strain of E. coli called O104.

Joint investigations with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) found that people who were ill with this particular strain of E. coli O157 infection were statistically more likely to have lived in a household where leeks sold loose (i.e. not prepacked) and potatoes bought in or sold from sacks had been handled, than those who had not. There was no evidence to suggest any particular retail source or variety of the produce was responsible for people becoming ill. Illness appears to have been caused by traces of soil carrying the E. coli O157 bacteria present on the vegetables.

Dr Andrew Wadge, Chief Scientist at the Food Standards Agency said: "It's sadly a myth that a little bit of dirt doesn't do you any harm; soil can sometimes carry harmful bacteria and, although food producers have good systems in place to clean vegetables, the risk can never be entirely eliminated. Control of infection from E. coli O157 relies on an awareness of all potential sources of the bacteria and high standards of hygiene where it may be present.

"This outbreak is a timely reminder that it is essential to wash all fruits and vegetables, including salad, before you eat them, unless they are labelled 'ready to eat', to ensure that they are clean. It is also important to wash hands thoroughly as well as clean chopping boards, knives and other utensils after preparing vegetables to prevent cross contamination."

Dr Adak from HPA, added: "It's important to remember that the risk of contracting E. coli O157 in these circumstances is very small compared with the huge benefit of eating plenty of vegetables. But E. coli O157 is a serious infection that can cause significant harm, and the public can protect themselves by taking simple but essential precautions such as preparing raw vegetables safely.

The following FSA advice applies to all food preparation and will also help reduce the risk of infection:

  • Remove any loose soil before storing vegetables and salads to avoid cross contamination of clean items.
  • Thoroughly wash all vegetables (including salads) that will be eaten raw unless they have been pre-prepared and are specifically labelled 'ready to eat'.
  • Do not prepare raw vegetables with utensils that have also been used for raw meat.
  • Keep raw meat and unwashed vegetables away from ready-to-eat foods during storage and preparation.
  • Use different chopping boards, knives and utensils for raw and ready-to-eat foods, or ensure they are washed thoroughly between uses.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after handling raw food - including meat and unwashed vegetables. Always wash your hands thoroughly before preparing food, particularly after using the toilet (or helping others including changing nappies), before meals, and after contact with animals or their environments.
  • Cook all minced meat products (i.e. burgers, meatloaf, meat balls etc.) thoroughly, until steaming hot throughout and no pinkness or red meat is visible when you cut into them.
  • Ensure that refrigerators are working correctly - bacteria grow more quickly at temperatures over 4⁰C.
  • Only leave cooked foods, meat and dairy products out at room temperature for a short time.
  • Store uncooked meats below cooked meats, salad, fruit or vegetables that might be eaten raw to avoid dripping meat juices onto ready to eat food.
  • Store uncooked and cooked meats on different plates. Avoid all contact between raw and cooked meats.
  • Children and the elderly, who are particularly susceptible to the severe effects of food poisoning, should avoid eating or drinking unpasteurised milk or dairy products.
  • People who have been ill should not prepare food for others for at least 48 hours after they have recovered.

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