New Jersey and New York authorities are investigating an
outbreak of the E. coli bacterial infection. Here are some
questions and answers about E. coli bacteria:
Q: What is E. coli?
A: E. coli, short for Escherichia coli, is a type of bacteria
commonly found in the intestines of humans, livestock and other
animals that is excreted in feces. The strain called O157:H7, a top
cause of foodborne illness, is particularly dangerous. It causes
diarrhea, often bloody and usually with abdominal cramps, and can
cause fever as well.
Q: How do you get the infection?
A: The bacteria is generally spread by contaminated food but
also can be passed among family members, particularly toddlers with
poor hygiene; in day care centers, and from contact with animals
and contaminated surfaces at petting zoos.
The most common source of E. coli infection in this country is
undercooked ground beef that was contaminated during slaughter or
The bacteria can be spread by food handlers who don’t wash their
hands thoroughly after using the restroom, and E. coli can
contaminate fresh produce throughout the production chain, from
farms to packaging facilities. E. coli can be spread by runoff or
irrigation water contaminated by cattle feces, by contaminated
fertilizer and by wildlife such as deer getting into farm fields.
Q: Why is it dangerous?
A: While hundreds of E. coli strains are harmless, the O157:H7
strain produces a powerful toxin. In people with weak immune
systems, particularly young children and the elderly, the infection
can cause serious kidney damage, blindness, paralysis, the need to
remove part of the bowel and sometimes death.
Q: Did everyone get it from Taco Bell?
A: Authorities are trying to determine how and where the people
with confirmed cases of E. coli became infected. However, most of
them ate at a Taco Bell restaurant in South Plainfield, north of
New Brunswick in central Jersey.
Q: What is Taco Bell doing? Should I be nervous about eating at
The South Plainfield Taco Bell closed voluntarily and its
employees are being tested for the bacterial infection. A spokesman
said the company has taken every precaution possible “as nothing
is more important to us than the health and safety of our customers
and employees.” He added that all Taco Bell employees are required
to adhere to strict food-handling rules.
Q: Doesn’t the state inspect restaurants? Shouldn’t this have
The restaurant in South Plainfield was inspected last week and
no significant health code violations were found, according to the
county health director.
Q: How do I know if I have an E. coli infection?
A: Call your doctor if you have symptoms including diarrhea,
bloody stool, abdominal cramps and fever. Symptoms usually start
within two to seven days of exposure to contaminated food. The
doctor likely will order testing of a stool specimen to confirm
Q: If I get it, what should I do?
A: Follow your doctor’s advice and drink plenty of nonalcoholic
fluids to prevent dehydration. Do not take antibiotics, which can
lead to kidney complications, and avoid any antidiarrheal agents
such as Imodium. In the most serious cases, blood transfusions or
kidney dialysis may be required.
Q. How I can I protect myself against E. coli?
A: Always wash your hands with soap and warm water before
preparing foods. Wash fresh produce under running water before
eating or cooking, even if you are peeling it, and use a produce
brush when possible. Dry produce with a paper towel or clean cloth
towel. Avoid eating raw sprouts because rinsing will not remove
bacteria from them. Keep fruits and vegetables that will be eaten
raw separate from all other foods, and use separate utensils,
cutting boards and dishes for them.
Cook ground beef until the thickest part has an internal
temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit or the center is no longer
pink. If served an undercooked hamburger, send it back for
additional cooking and ask for a clean plate and new bun. Do not
drink untreated water, and avoid swallowing water in a lake or
swimming pool. Only drink pasteurized milk, juice and cider. Don’t
eat in restaurants that appear dirty, as this may be a sign of poor
Q: Have there been any E. coli outbreaks in other parts of the
A: Since 1995, there have been at least 20 U.S. outbreaks of E.
coli infection linked to spinach or lettuce alone, including a
widespread one in September involving spinach that affected people
in more than 25 states. Those outbreaks have sickened a total of
about 600 people and killed five, according to the Food and Drug
Administration. Ground beef processors periodically issue recalls
when they discover products have been contaminated, and some
outbreaks have been linked to fast food restaurants. The Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention estimates E. coli 0157:H7
infects about 73,000 Americans and kills 61 each year.
FDA tips on safe produce handling:
Sources: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, AP research.
(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press.Â All Rights Reserved.)