The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Monday that another outbreak of E. coli has been detected in Kansas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota from Nov. 18 to Nov. 26 that resulted in the sickening of five people. All of the victims have reportedly eaten at a Chipotle restaurant around a week before they became ill.
According to the CDC, the latest cases of infection are tied to a strain of the Shiga toxin-producing bacteria that has a different DNA identification than those that caused earlier E. coli outbreaks.
Chipotle has suffered from a string of food contamination cases related to E. coli in the past few weeks, including one that sickened 46 of 53 people who dined at one of the restaurant's branches in the days before the new incidents.
Another 120 students from Boston College also got sick earlier this month after eating at a Chipotle restaurant, but according to the food company, these cases were likely caused by norovirus infection and not an E. coli contamination.
Chris Arnold, a representative of Chipotle, said the company already anticipated that additional cases could spring up following earlier incidents of infection and that it already completed a comprehensive reevaluation of its programs for food safety with emphasis placed on developing the best ways to handle the ingredients used.
"We are now in the process of implementing those programs, including high resolution testing of ingredients, end of shelf-life testing of ingredients, continuous improvement in the supply system based on testing data, and enhanced food safety training for all of our restaurant teams," Arnold said.
"With all of these programs in place, we are confident that we can achieve a level of food safety risk that is near zero."
Investigators are still trying to determine whether the latest E. coli infection cases are connected to earlier ones that affected nine different states including Washington and Oregon. The newest of these previous infection cases involved an individual who dined at a Chipotle and fell ill on Nov. 10.
What is E. coli?
Escherichia coli (E. coli) is a species of bacteria often found living in the intestines of other organisms such as animals and humans.
While most forms of the bacteria are known to be harmless and even beneficial to the health of their hosts, some strains of E. coli are also pathogenic. This means that they can cause their hosts to suffer from diarrhea and other illness outside of their intestinal tract.
Diarrhea-causing E. coli can be transmitted from one carrier to another through direct contact or by ingesting food or water contaminated with the bacteria.
Most foodborne infections, such as the one currently being investigated by the CDC, are associated with a type of bacteria known as Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC). Scientists sometimes refer to this pathogenic type as enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) or Verocytotoxin-producing E. coli (VTEC).
E. coli Transmission
One of the most common ways E. coli can be transmitted to humans is by eating contaminated meat that was not properly cooked. The bacteria can also be transferred to other foods when it comes into contact with infected meat.
Health experts advise people to cook meat using heat at about 71 degrees Celsius (160 degrees Fahrenheit) in order to effectively kill the bacteria that could be on it.
Some other foods that could carry the E. coli bacteria include raw milk or dairy products and raw vegetables and fruits.
For these types of food, experts urge people to use only pasteurized products to make sure that they are not contaminated with the bacteria. The process of pasteurization involves killing off microbes on foods by heating them.
Symptoms of E. coli Infection?
People infected with the bacteria develop symptoms such as vomiting, stomach cramps, nausea and bloody diarrhea.
The occurrence of symptoms varies from person to person, but previous cases of infection have shown that children are more likely to manifest signs of the illness compared to adults.
Symptoms of infection usually appear three to four days after contracting the E. coli bacteria.
In most instances, affected individuals choose not to seek help from doctors as the infection tends to wear off after a week. However, severe cases of the illness can cause long-lasting kidney or blood problem marked by the occurrence of fever, bruising, pale skin, weakness, and the inability to pass urine freely.
E. coli Infection Treatment
E. coli-related infection typically wears off after a week, but doctors still advise infected individuals to keep themselves hydrated at all times. This is because the illness can trigger diarrhea that can cause the body to lose more water than it usually does.
Infants and older people are particularly prone to dehydration caused by diarrhea, which is why it is important to regularly give them small sips of water to keep them well hydrated while recovering from E. coli infection.
Patients who suffer from bloody diarrhea caused by E. coli are discouraged from taking antibiotics or diarrhea medicine as these can slow down the body's digestion process and allow the bacterial toxins to be absorbed faster. Infected individuals are advised to seek help from a doctor instead.
In severe infection cases, patients could develop serious issues with their blood and kidneys, which would require them to undergo dialysis or blood transfusion.
Tips To Avoid E. coli Infection
Aside from cooking meat at 71 degrees Celsius (160 degrees Fahrenheit) and using pasteurized food products, people are advised to keep a well-sanitized cooking area in order to prevent transmission of the E. coli bacteria.
Cooking utensils and kitchen surfaces have to be thoroughly cleaned, especially after preparing raw meat.
People should also wash their hands regularly using hot, soapy water.