The Public Health Agency of Canada is collaborating with federal and provincial public health partners to investigate an outbreak of Escherichia coli, called E. coli O121. The source of the outbreak has not been identified, and the investigation is ongoing.
The risk to Canadians is low. However, Canadians are reminded to follow safe food handling practices to avoid illness.
E. coli are bacteria that live naturally in the intestines of cattle, poultry and other animals. Most E. coli are harmless to humans. However, there are many different strains of E.coli, and some varieties can cause serious illness.
While most people made ill by E. coli experience a few days of upset stomach and then recover fully, infections can sometimes be life threatening.
There have been 12 cases of E. coli O121 with a matching genetic fingerprint reported in three provinces: British Columbia (4), Saskatchewan (4), and Newfoundland and Labrador (4). The illness onset dates range from November to December 2016. Four individuals have been hospitalized. These individuals have recovered or are recovering. The investigation into the source of the outbreak is ongoing.
Two of the most common ways to come into contact with E. coli are by improperly handling raw ground meat and by eating ground meat that is undercooked. Common sources of E.coli may also be contaminated raw fruits and vegetables, untreated water, unpasteurized milk and raw milk products, and unpasteurized apple juice or cider.
Who is most at risk?
Although anyone can get an E. coli infection, pregnant women, those with compromised immune systems, young children and older adults are most at risk for developing serious complications.
What you should do to protect your health?
Foods contaminated with E. coli look, smell and taste normal. E. coli and many other harmful bacteria can be killed by cooking food properly. The following tips will help reduce your risk of becoming ill from E. coli:
• Cook food to a safe internal temperature using a digital thermometer.
• Do not eat hamburger patties that are pink in the middle. If served an undercooked hamburger, send it back for further cooking. Ask for a new bun and a clean plate.
• Avoid spreading harmful bacteria. Keep raw meat separate from ready-to-eat foods.
• Use warm soapy water to clean knives, cutting boards, utensils, your hands and any surfaces that have come in contact with food, especially meat and fish.
• Wash raw fruits and vegetables thoroughly with clean, safe running water before you prepare and eat them. Use a brush to scrub produce with firm or rough surfaces, like oranges, cantaloupes, potatoes and carrots.
• Read labels and follow cooking and storage instructions for all food. When buying food, make sure to check the “best before” date, and if the product has expired, let the store know.
• If you think you are infected with E. coli bacteria or any other gastrointestinal illness, do not prepare food for other people.
People infected with E. coli can have a wide range of symptoms. Some do not get sick at all, though they can still spread the infection to others. Others feel as though they have a bad case of upset stomach. Still others become seriously ill and must be hospitalized.
The following symptoms can appear within one to ten days after contact with the bacteria:
• severe stomach cramps
• watery or bloody diarrhea
• little or no fever
Most symptoms clear up within five to ten days without needing to see a healthcare professional. However, some people who are infected with E. coli develop life-threatening symptoms, including kidney failure, seizures and stroke. While most individuals will recover completely, others may suffer permanent health effects, like kidney damage. Death can also result in extremely rare cases.
What the Government of Canada is doing
The Government of Canada is committed to food safety. The Public Health Agency of Canada leads multi-jurisdictional human health investigations of outbreaks and is in regular contact with its federal and provincial partners to monitor and take collaborative steps to address outbreaks.
Health Canada provides food-related health risk assessments to determine if the presence of a certain substance or microorganism poses a health risk to consumers.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) conducts food safety investigations into the possible food source of an outbreak.
The Government of Canada will continue to update Canadians if new information related to this investigation becomes available.