Protection from EHEC: careful handling of raw milk, raw meat and sprouts necessary

Leaflet: Protection against Infections with Enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC)

19-Jun-2012 - Germany

EHEC pathogens are naturally found in the intestine of cattle and other ruminants. Humans can become infected with the germ through direct contact with animals or via raw foods of animal origin. EHEC can also be transmitted via fruit and vegetables, although their occurrence in these foods is much rarer. The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) has produced a leaflet with tips for consumers on how to protect themselves from EHEC infections. In view of the major EHEC outbreak in early summer 2011, the BfR once again draws attention to hygiene measures which must be observed in the cultivation and preparation of sprouts, since contaminated sprouts were in all likelihood the cause of the numerous infections at the time. Independently of the past EHEC outbreak, the BfR had already earlier drawn attention to the risk of contracting disease resulting from the consumption of raw spr outs. "Sprouts are a paradise for germs of all sorts", says BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. "The warm and humid cultivation conditions facilitate the multiplication of pathogens and spoilage microorganisms." The hygiene rules for the preparation of sprouts and other foods not only protect consumers against EHEC infections but also diseases transmitted by other pathogens such as salmonella and listeria.

If EHEC infections are transmitted via food, they are typically caused by raw milk or raw milk products as well as raw or insufficiently heated meat from ruminants. The safest protection measure against EHEC infections is to boil raw milk and to heat meat sufficiently before consumption. This means heating to the core of the food to 70 degrees Celsius for at least two minutes, since pathogens are killed under these conditions. In addition, transmission of germs from such raw foods to other food should be avoided, for example by carefully observing hand and kitchen hygiene rules and by strictly separating raw meat from other types of food when preparing them.

In plant-based food, EHEC bacteria are less frequently found in Germany than in food of animal origin. However, in early summer 2011, contaminated sprouts are highly likely to have been the trigger for what has so far been the most severe EHEC outbreak in Germany. In total, almost 4,000 reported cases of illness were attributed to the outbreak. Even before that, the BfR had indicated that sprouts may be contaminated with pathogenic germs (for example listeria, salmonella or E. coli).

When handling seeds and raw sprouts, consumers should be particularly meticulous in taking hygiene measures in order to minimise the risk of an infection. If possible, sprouts should also be sufficiently heated by boiling or frying or at least thoroughly washed before they are eaten. Pathogens cannot be removed completely by light heating or washing of the sprouts. For this reason, persons with a weak immune system, i.e. infants, pregnant women, the elderly and persons suffering from illness should, to be on the safe side, only eat sprouts after they have been adequately heated.

In the leaflet “Consumer Tips: Protection against Infections with Enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC)”, further measures to avoid EHEC infections are listed.

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