E. coli and Food Safety

What You Need to Know

  • Some E. coli cause diarrhea. These germs can spread through contaminated food or water.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water.
  • Follow the four steps to food safety when preparing food: clean, separate, cook, and chill.
  • Take precautions with food and water when traveling abroad.
  • Do not drink untreated water or swallow water when swimming.
  • Wash your hands after contact with animals or their environments.
A family eating outside

Although most kinds of E. coli (Escherichia coli) are harmless, some can make you sick. Learn about the kinds of E. coli that cause diarrhea and what you can do to lower your chances of infection.

What are E. coli?

E. coli are bacteria found in the intestines of people and animals and in the environment. They can also be found in food and untreated water.

Most E. coli are harmless and are part of a healthy intestinal tract. However, some cause illnesses that are sometimes severe, such as diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness, and bloodstream infections. The types of E. coli that cause diarrhea are spread through contaminated food or water and through contact with animals or people.

People at Risk for E. coli

Anyone can get sick from E. coli, but some people have an increased chance of infection. These people are:

  • Adults aged 65 and older
  • Children younger than 5 years of age
  • People with weakened immune systems
  • People who travel to certain countries

Symptoms of E. coli

Most people have diarrhea, which can be bloody, and most have stomach cramps that may be severe. Some also have vomiting. A high fever is uncommon. Symptoms usually last 5–7 days.

About 5–10% of people diagnosed with a type of E. coli called Shiga toxin-producing E. coli O157 develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS)—a serious condition that can cause kidney failure.

Contact your healthcare provider if you have

  • Diarrhea that lasts for more than 3 days,
  • Bloody diarrhea,
  • Vomiting so often that you cannot keep liquids down,
  • A fever higher than 102°F, or
  • Signs of dehydration, including not urinating (peeing) much, a dry mouth and throat, and feeling dizzy when standing up.

For more information, visit the E. coli Questions and Answers page.

Prevent E. coli Infection

  • Wash your handsthoroughly with soap and running water during key times like before, during, and after preparing food, before eating, and after using the toilet.
  • Follow the four steps to food safety when preparing food: clean, separate, cook, and chill.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables well under running water, unless the package says the contents have already been washed.
  • Use a food thermometer to make sure meat has reached a safe internal temperature:
    • Cook ground beef, pork, and lamb to an internal temperature of at least 160°F. The best way to check the temperature of patties is to insert the thermometer from the side until it reaches the center.
    • Cook steaks and roasts of beef to an internal temperature of at least 145°F and allow the meat to rest for 3 minutes before carving or eating. Check the temperature in the thickest part of steaks or roasts.
  • Don’t eat raw dough or batter.
  • Drink pasteurized milk and juices.
  • Prevent cross-contamination by thoroughly washing hands, counters, cutting boards, and utensils with soap and water after they touch raw meat.
  • Do not drink untreated water or swallow water when swimming or playing in lakes, ponds, streams, swimming pools, and backyard “kiddie” pools.
  • Take precautions with food and water when traveling abroad.

Prevent E. coli Infection From Animals

Play it safe around animals, including those at petting zoos, farms, fairs, and even in your backyard.

  • Wash your hands often. Running water and soap are best. If they are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol and wash your hands with soap and running water as soon as you can.
  • Eat and drink safely by keeping food and drinks out of animal areas.
  • Always supervise children around animals.
Food Safety Tips
Family in a kitchen preparing food

Learn more tips to protect yourself and your loved ones from food poisoning.