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Controlling E.coli O157

Minced beef

If you’re old enough to remember any major news events of 1996, you would be hard pressed not to recall the tragedy that unfolded in a small town in Scotland.   A butcher’s shop in Wishaw, Lanarkshire was the location from which the world’s worst recorded outbreak of E. coli food poisoning originated.  An outbreak in which twenty one people sadly died and an estimated 500 others were seriously ill and directly affected.

Thankfully these sorts of outbreaks are rare but they do occur, as proven by this event back in 1996 and, more recently, the outbreak in the USA where nearly 100 people in over 20 different states were affected by an outbreak of E. coli poisoning linked to romaine lettuce.  10 of those affected had kidney failure and 46 were hospitalised.

A potentially lethal pathogen, E. coli (Escherichia coli) is bacteria which lives in the intestines of humans and animals.  There are different strains of E. coli, most of which are harmless, but one particular strain produces a toxin called Shiga toxin.  This strain is called E.coli O157: H7.  The toxins produced can cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, fever and bloody diarrhoea.  More seriously, it can destroy red blood cells causing kidney failure and, in worst cases, even death.  Not everybody will contract kidney failure or face a terminal outcome and will recover within 6-8 days, however, the risk is very real and should be taken extremely seriously.

The bacteria is usually found in contaminated food and water.  Food stuffs include unpasteurised milk/milk products (such as soft cheese etc.), undercooked minced beef, some raw fruit and vegetables or anything that might have had contact with faecal matter, possibly in or near a farm environment.  Crops most typically affected are items such as lettuce, spinach and sprouts.  It can also be contracted through contaminated water (drinking it or swimming in it) and possibly from a farmyard environment if you come into direct contact with animals.

With such serious implications, it is imperative that your business takes precautions to avoid contamination of any of your products:


  • Wash your hands thoroughly before preparing any food, – but especially before handling high-risk, ready-to-eat food
  • If you have been visiting a farm and had contact with animals (something you may well do on a frequent basis as a food producer or purchaser) make sure you wash your hands thoroughly before leaving and change/wash the clothes you were wearing before getting anywhere near any food preparation area
  • Ensure any minced beef product (including burgers) has been cooked to an internal temperature of at least 75˚C
  • Make sure any food product such as lettuce or spinach is washed thoroughly in clean water, especially if being served raw
  • Avoid cross contamination. Make sure you are meticulous about washing your hands and any implements you have used to prepare food before using them on a different food item
  • Always use sanitisers which meet the BS EN standards, and always follow the manufacturer’s instructions. (A database of compliant sanitisers and disinfectants can be found at: www.disinfectant-info.co.uk  here )
  • Where possible, keep food chilled below 5˚C as this slows bacteria growth. Raw minced beef products should ideally be kept below 3˚C
  • If anybody within your food business is infected with E.coli it is vital that they stay away from company premises and other work colleagues until they are completely clear of the infection as it can also be transferred by person to person contact. The general rule is 48 hours after symptoms have ceased, however with E.coli O157 it may be necessary to get medical clearance first.

The little butcher’s shop in Wishaw was the subject of numerous newspaper articles for many years following 1996.  They say there is no such thing as bad publicity but, when it comes to food establishments, it can be the kiss of death.  With the right precautions in place, your business should be able to stay free of E.coli and free of bad publicity.


To discuss your food safety requirements, please contact us today.