The Washtenaw County Public Health Department announced yesterday that it is investigating 10 potential E. coli cases that are likely caused by a common food source, according to a report in the Detroit News.  

Dr. Diana Torres-Burgos, Washtenaw County’s medical director, announced that the county is in the early stages of an investigation and is trying to do as much as possible to identify probable cases and prevent additional illness.  

Although the source of the potential E. coli outbreak has not been determined public health officials are encouraging anyone with symptoms of E. coli infection, which include painful abdominal cramping and diarrhea, which may become bloody, to contact their health care provider and notify the health department of their illness.

ecoli2-featured.jpgSources of E. coli 

Throughout the 1990s and into the early 21st century, the majority of foodborne E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks were caused by the consumption of contaminated ground beef.  In fact, hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) secondary to E. coli O157:H7 infection was known as “Hamburger Disease.” 

Although E. coli is now widely disseminated throughout the food chain–it has even been found in foods such as pizza and cookie dough–the ground beef connection has not gone away.  Numerous outbreaks and massive recalls of E. coli-contaminated ground beef and other meat products continue to plague both the meat industry and the public.  Improper sanitation, cross-contamination, and a failure to cook meat to a high enough temperature to kill E. coli have all been factors contributing to E. coli outbreaks associated with restaurant food.

The introduction of pasteurization greatly reduced the number of foodborne illness outbreaks associated with milk and other dairy sources; but the consumption of raw milk and unpasteurized cheeses remains a risk factor for E. coli infection.  E. coli and other pathogens are shed in the feces of livestock such as cows and goats and can contaminate milk during the milking process.

Fresh fruits and vegetables can become contaminated before or after harvest.  Contaminated seeds, irrigation water, and flooding have contributed to E. coli outbreaks traced to sprouts, lettuce, spinach, parsley, and other fresh produce.  Apples picked up from the ground and used in the production of unpasteurized fruit juices and cider have been the source of several E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks.

Person-to-person transmission of E. coli occurs through a fecal-oral route, and is particularly common among infants and young children due to their unrefined hygienic practices.  Person-to-person transmission of E. coli has also been known to occur between infected individuals and their caregivers, and between infected food handlers and people who consume the food they prepare.

More information about the different sources of E. coli infection is available.