E. coli and Food Safety

A family eating at outdoor restaurant

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

What are Escherichia coli?

Escherichia coli (E. coli) are bacteria found in the intestines of people and animals and in the environment; they can also be found in foods.

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

Two types of E. coli that cause diarrheal illness diagnosed in the United States are Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) and enterotoxigenic E. coli (ETEC).

STEC are a group of E. coli that produce Shiga toxin. This toxin causes people to have diarrhea, which can be bloody. When you hear reports about outbreaks of E. coli infections in the United States, they’re usually talking about a type called STEC O157.

ETEC are the leading cause of travelers’ diarrhea and a major cause of diarrhea around the world, especially among children.

Who is more likely to get an E. coli infection?

Anyone can get sick from harmful 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, including pregnant women
  • People who travel to certain countries

What are the symptoms of E. coli infections?

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

ETEC: Most people have stomach cramps and watery diarrhea. Symptoms usually last 3–4 days.

Contact your healthcare provider if you have diarrhea or vomiting that lasts for more than 2 days, bloody stools, a fever higher than 102°F, or signs of dehydration (including little or no urination, excessive thirst, a very dry mouth, dizziness or lightheadedness, or very dark urine).

Most people with an E. coli infection will recover without any specific treatment. Whether your doctor prescribes antibiotics depends on several factors, including the kind of E. coli infection you have and the severity of your infection.

Antibiotics should not be used to treat STEC infection. Taking certain antibiotics may lead to the production or release of more Shiga toxin, which can increase the chance of kidney damage.

How can I prevent E. coli infection?

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and running water.
  • Follow the four steps to food safety when preparing food: clean, separate, cook, and chill.
  • Use a food thermometerexternal icon to make sure meat has reached a safe minimum cooking temperatureexternal icon:
    • Cook ground beef, pork, and lamb to an internal temperature of at least 160°F (70°C).
      • 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 (62.6°C) and allow the meat to rest for 3 minutes after you remove it from the grill or stove.
      • Check the temperature in the thickest part of steaks or roasts.
  • 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.
  • Don’t eat raw dough or batter.
  • Drink pasteurized milk and juices.
  • Take precautions with food and water when traveling abroad.

How can I prevent E. coli infection from animals?

  • Play it safe around animals, including those at petting zoos, farms, fairs, and even your backyard.
    • Wash your hands often.
    • Eat and drink safely.
      • Keep food and drinks out of animal areas.
    • Keep children safe around animals.
      • Children always need adult supervision around animals.
A Dangerous Complication

Child Recovering in the Hospital

About 5–10% of people diagnosed with STEC O157 infection develop a life-threatening complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS)external icon—a type of kidney failure. Signs that a person is developing HUS include:

  • Urinating less often
  • Feeling very tired
  • Losing pink color in cheeks and inside the lower eyelids

People with HUS should be hospitalized because their kidneys may stop working and they may develop other serious problems. Most people with HUS recover within a few weeks, but some suffer permanent health problems or die.

A hamburger

You can’t tell whether meat is safely cooked by looking at its color.

Problem: One in four burgers turns brown before it has reached the safe internal temperature of 160°F.

Solution: Use a food thermometerexternal icon to check that it’s safe to eat.