Healthy living

How to avoid catching E.coli

How to avoid catching E.coli Practical tips for preparing food

An E.coli outbreak which started in north Germany has already caused the deaths of 14 people, with more than 300 seriously ill.

Experts are warning that the worse is still to come. Other cases have been reported in the UK, Sweden, Denmark, France and the Netherlands, all linked to travel in Germany.

E. coli is a bacterium which lives in the gut of humans and animals. Usually harmless, but some strains can produce toxins which cause fatal disease in humans. People are usually infected after eating undercooked meat or eating vegetables grown on land which has become contaminated.

Another source of outbreaks in the UK in recent years has been petting farms.

Several of the cases in Germany have been linked to eating contaminated organic cucumbers from Spain. (UPDATE: Officials have now stated that Spain is not the source of the contamination. See here for more details.) However, it is still not clear whether they are the original source of the bacteria, or became contaminated in Germany from another source.

Travellers in Germany are now being advised by the UK Health Protection Agency to avoid eating raw cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes.

In the UK, E.coli 0157 is usually the cause of serious illness, such as haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), which can cause kidney failure and death, but in Germany a rare and particularly virulent bacterial strain - E.coli O104 - is the cause of the outbreak.

This particular strain appears to be causing severe disease in more people. In general, up to 10 per cent of people infected with E.coli are at risk of HUS, but this figure is reaching 50 per cent in Germany.

Rather than affecting young children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems, which is usually the case, the E.coli 0104 outbreak is mainly affecting adults – almost 70 per cent of whom are women.

How can I protect myself from E. coli?

There are four main areas where you can follow good practice to ensure that you minimize any risks:

  • Personal hygiene
  • Food storage
  • Food preparation
  • Cooking

Personal Hygiene

Always wash your hands after using the bathroom, before handling food and after handling raw meat. This will help to stop bacteria being transferred from raw to fresh or already cooked foods.

Food storage

  • Check your fridge is at the correct temperature for storing food – between 0 and 5 - degrees centigrade
  • Always store fresh food in the fridge. The bacterium thrives at warmer temperatures
  • Keep bottles and jars closed
  • Cover leftovers and keep them in the fridge
  • Eat leftovers within 2 days (1 day for rice based dishes)
  • Keep raw meats away from cooked meats
  • Store raw meats at the bottom of the fridge (to stop juices dripping onto other foods)

Food preparation

  • Wash your hands before handling food
  • Dry hands as wet hands can transfer bacteria more easily
  • Keep raw fish and meat separate from other food, including food which has been already cooked
  • Never use knives and other utensils on raw meats and fish and then on other foods
  • Always wash salads, including those which are pre-washed
  • Clean kitchen surfaces regularly


Cooking at the correct temperature kills the bacteria. Undercooked food is a major cause of food poisoning. All parts of the food should reach 70 degrees centigrade for at least 2 minutes.

For rare beef and lamb make sure that the outside is properly cooked as this is where the bacteria are found.

Pork and rolled joints of other meats should not be served rare. The juices should have no pink or red in them.

Minced meats, sausages, pork, chicken, kebabs, burgers and chicken nuggets should always be fully cooked.

This article was published on Tue 31 May 2011

Image © fotolia

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