Food Safety

Plating Protection: Serving Up Food Safety in the Face of E. Coli

Posted by
Trust20 Contributors • 10 minute read

E. coli is one of the most dangerous food contaminants out there–and it is sadly one of the most common causes of foodborne illnesses that infect millions and kill thousands of people each year. 

Let’s look at what E. coli is and, more importantly, how you can keep it off your customers’ plates.

What is E. coli?

What are the symptoms of an E. coli infection?

What should a food handler do to prevent E. coli?

Dealing with an E. coli outbreak

What is E. coli?

E. coli, or Escherichia coli, is a type of bacteria that normally lives in the intestines of humans and animals. Most types of E. coli are harmless and are an important part of the human intestinal tract's population of friendly microorganisms.1

However, some strains can cause illness, with symptoms varying from stomach cramps to bloody diarrhea. In severe cases, it can even lead to kidney failure, especially in young children and older adults.

The most common and virulent strain of E. coli is O157:H7. This strain produces a powerful toxin that can destroy red blood cells, leading to serious health problems.

While E. coli is often associated with meat, it can also be found in unpasteurized dairy products, fruits and vegetables, and even water.

Contamination can occur in the most unsuspecting ways: perhaps it was a lapse in the sanitation protocols at a processing plant or a field harboring a bacteria hotspot. In some cases, the source of contamination may not even be determined, making the situation all the more harrowing. 

A terrifying aspect of E. coli is that not all carriers exhibit symptoms.2 This means that the cook or anyone handling food may unknowingly spread the bacteria (like the infamous 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak, in which hamburgers turned to poison).

What food is E. coli found in?

E. coli is found in several popular food items, with the highest prevalence in raw milk and cheese, raw beef and poultry, sprouts, and leafy greens.3 Outbreaks in these products are often connected to cross-contamination during processing or preparation.

The Food and Drug Administration monitors and handles outbreaks traced to such food sources, providing guidelines and best practices for the industry. 

In the foodservice industry, though, understanding which items are high-risk will allow you to prioritize your handling and storage practices for these products.

What are the symptoms of an E. coli infection?

The severity and type of illness caused by E. coli can vary.4 Common symptoms include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea (often bloody), and vomiting. While most strains are harmless, some, like E. coli O157:H7, can lead to serious complications, especially in children under five and older adults.

Worse yet is the fact that for some people, E. Coli is asymptomatic. It’s possible to carry the bacteria (and pass it in your stool) without experiencing any symptoms, thus becoming an unwitting spreader.

How long does E. coli last?

The duration of E. coli varies depending on the individual and the specific strain. However, most people recover within a week, with some experiencing no symptoms.

It's important to note, though, that some might develop a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which requires immediate medical treatment.

Who is most susceptible to E. coli?

While anyone can become infected with E. coli, certain individuals, such as very young children, older adults, and people with weak immune systems, are more susceptible to severe infections.4 

What should a food handler do to prevent E. coli?

No chef worth their apron would serve up a side of E. coli. But you might be putting yourself and others at risk unknowingly. To minimize the risk, you need to take a multilayered approach. Here are some tips.

1. Wash Your Hands Often

If there's one ritual that must be elevated to the status of religious-like practice in the foodservice industry, it's handwashing.4 Wash with soap and water for at least 20 seconds to remove pathogens–hand sanitizer won’t cut it. Handwashing is especially important after you’ve touched raw meat, fruits, and vegetables. 

2. Clean and Sanitize Everything

Cleanliness truly is next to godliness in the kitchen. Every surface, every instrument, every nook and cranny that might have been touched by raw foods must be cleansed and sanitized. 

If you can, designate separate cleaning tools for raw and cooked food areas. You should also frequently replace sponges and cloths used for cleaning counters to avoid them becoming breeding grounds for bacteria. Bleach is a good option here–chlorine bleach-based products are believed to be most effective against E. coli.5

3. Cook Foods to Proper Temperatures

Keep hot foods hot to make sure they stay out of the temperature danger zone.

The USDA recommends cooking ground beef to an internal temperature of 160°F (71°C) and poultry to 165°F (74°C). For whole cuts of beef, pork, lamb, and veal, reaching a temperature of 145°F (63°C) and allowing the meat to rest for three minutes minimizes E. coli risks.

Using a food thermometer is the most reliable way to verify that these temperatures have been achieved and that you’re protected against E. coli

4. Keep Cold Food Colds

Just as you need to keep hot foods hot, keep cold ones cold! Keep your refrigerator at or below 40°F and your freezer at 0°F. Track these temperatures with calibrated thermometers to ensure the safety of your food.

Also, be sure to refrigerate perishables within two hours and one hour if the temperature is 90°F or higher.

5. Check Water Quality

It’s not just the food you need to concern yourself with–pay some thought to the water, too. In some places, water is more commonly a vector for E. coli and similar pathogens than food is.6

Therefore, water must be considered an ingredient that requires safety checks as much as any other in the food preparation process. Invest in regular tests and inspections by water management authorities to ensure a sound water supply.

6. Wash Fruits and Vegetables Well

Although E. coli contamination is more common in meat, it also frequently occurs in produce.4 Because of this, it’s important that you understand where and when your produce enters the supply chain–you’ll want to exercise vigilance at each stage.

Wash all fruits and vegetables well. For leafy greens, in particular, you’ll want to do multiple washes under cold water to dislodge any bacteria that might be clinging to their surfaces. 

7. Prevent Cross-Contamination 

Remember, cross-contamination is one of the most common ways that bacteria, specifically E. coli, is spread. To prevent E. coli from hitchhiking on innocent ingredients, use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw and cooked food.

Also, make sure you’re keeping things separate (and secure) in the refrigerator. Store raw meat on the lowest shelves or in sealed containers so juices don’t drip onto other foods.

8. Wipe Up Spills ASAP and Clean Fridges and Coolers Often

Piggybacking off the last point, remember that it’s important to keep the interiors of your fridges and coolers sanitized and well-organized, too. Plan for regular deep cleans and weekly cleanouts (at a minimum) to prevent E. coli from spreading from contaminated foods. 

9. Pay Attention to Food Recalls and Vet Your Suppliers

Even if you’re careful as can be in your own establishment, the fact still remains that what happens before the food gets to you is out of your control–sort of. While you don’t have control over what your suppliers do, you do have control over who they are.

Vet all of your suppliers carefully and pay close attention to food recalls.7 Be swift in removing any recalled items from service to reduce the risk of E. coli outbreaks. 

10. Be Mindful of Mayonnaise

Unfortunately, just like most of us, E. coli is also a huge fan of mayo. Some studies have shown that certain strains of E. coli can survive in mayonnaise regardless of the final pH or storage temperature (though other studies have demonstrated that mayonnaise is no more likely to harbor microorganisms than other condiments).8,9

Regardless, play it safe and make sure you store mayonnaise at the proper temperature and are vigilant about cross-contamination. To minimize contamination, use clean utensils and never double-dip when using mayonnaise.

11. Stay Home if You’re Sick

You now know that E. coli can be spread by unwitting hosts since it is often asymptomatic. 

However, that doesn’t mean you should throw caution to the wind when you are sick. If you’re having any symptoms, from nausea to diarrhea to vomiting, don’t spread them around and call in sick instead. Sharing is not caring here.

And if you’re a manager, make sure you have clear policies in place regarding team members and their sick time. It’s better to be safe than sorry, and you need to make sure protocols are in place and communicated well to everyone who might come into contact with customers’ food.

12. Follow “Best By” or “Use By” Dates

Pay close attention to the “Best By” and “Use By” dates on packages. This will ensure that the food you’re serving is healthy and safe. 

13. Cover All Food

Last but not least, make sure you keep all food under wraps when it’s in storage.10 Don’t leave out open containers or dishes. 

This is basically like laying out the welcome mat for E. coli and other contaminants to jump around between foods–and you’re also speeding up the time to spoilage. Who would want that?

Dealing with an E. coli outbreak

Facing an E. coli outbreak at your establishment can be scary, but with the right steps, you can keep your customers safe. Here are some simple tips to help you handle the situation:

  • Stay Calm: Stay calm and focused. Panicking won't help resolve the issue.

  • Isolate Contaminated Food: If you suspect a certain food item is the source of the outbreak, remove it immediately to prevent further contamination.

  • Sanitize Thoroughly: Clean and sanitize all surfaces, utensils, and equipment to eliminate any lingering bacteria.

  • Educate Staff: Ensure that your staff is aware of the outbreak and the importance of following proper hygiene and food safety protocols.

  • Communicate with Health Authorities: Report the outbreak to health authorities promptly and cooperate with their investigation.

  • Discard or Store Affected Food: Wait until you hear from authorities about whether or not to dispose of the contaminated food.

  • Review Procedures: Evaluate your food handling procedures to identify areas for improvement and prevent future outbreaks.

  • Monitor Symptoms: Look for customers or staff showing symptoms of illness and advise them to seek medical attention.

Ultimately, taking swift and decisive action can help contain the outbreak and protect both your customers and your reputation.

The Takeaway

In the war against E. coli and other foodborne illnesses, knowledge is your strongest weapon and your shield. Hopefully, you now know the basics about preventing and dealing with E. coli in your restaurant or foodservice establishment, but remember: the quest for safety is an ongoing one.

If you want to ensure the safety of your customers (and the entire team), you need to invest in regular education. At Trust20, we’ve made it our goal to provide food service professionals with the resources and training products they need to meet and exceed industry standards.

Remember, a meal prepared with safety is the secret ingredient to success–and to unparalleled customer satisfaction. 

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  1. ORAPI Asia: Food Safety: The Dangers of E. Coli in Food Processing 

  2. Xinxia Sui et al: Characteristics of Shiga Toxin-Producing Escherichia coli Circulating in Asymptomatic Food Handlers

  3. FDA: Escherichia coli (E. coli)

  4. CDC: E. coli and Food Safety

  5. North Dakota State University: Germ Defense Pyramid

  6. World Health Organization: E. coli

  7. Penn State Extension: E. coli: A Food Safety Concern

  8. Scielo: Growth and survival of Escherichia coli O157: H7 in meat, poultry and veg-etables mixed with different concentrations of mayonnaise

  9. Stephen D. Weagant et al: Survival of Escherichia coli O157:H7 in Mayonnaise and Mayonnaise-Based Sauces at Room and Refrigerated Temperatures

  10. University of Florida: FSHN031/FS097: Preventing Foodborne Illness: E. coli O157:H7