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Types of Food Poisoning: E. Coli

What is Escherichia coli O157:H7?

Escherichia coli (E.coli) is a form of bacteria that lives in mammals' digestive tract. There are several different strains of E.coli, many of which are harmless. However, one particular strain known as E.coli O157:H7 is a leading cause of food poisoning (or "food borne illness"). It produces a powerful toxin that can cause severe bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Occasionally, E.coli infection leads to Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, or HUS, which can give the patient kidney failure, strokes, and comas. Most people infected with E.coli recover, but for some patients, particularly infants and the elderly, an E.coli infection can be deadly.

How is E. coli O157:H7 spread?

E. coli O157:H7 can live in the intestines of healthy cattle, deer, goats, and sheep. The bacteria are then excreted with the livestock's fecal matter, which sometimes contaminates our food supply. Meat can become contaminated during slaughter, and organisms can be accidentally mixed into meat when it is ground. Bacteria present on the cow's udders or on milking equipment may get into raw milk. Water contaminated with sewage can spread E. coli O157:H7 when it is used to wash vegetables, enters the drinking water supply, or is used in swimming pools. Person-to-person contact in families and child care centers is also a known mode of transmission.

E.Coli and the Law

Since E.coli infections can be severe, many people who become ill try to sue the companies who sell contaminated food. There are several different legal theories upon which these lawsuits proceed :

  • Strict Liability: In order to succeed under a theory of strict liability, it is not necessary to show that the manufacturer did anything incorrectly. It is simply enough to show that you ate food produced by the manufacturer and that you suffered an E.coli infection because of it.
  • Violation of Express or Implied Warranty: When a producer sells food, they are claiming that the food is safe to eat. However, food that came in contact with fecal matter and became contaminated with E.coli is clearly unsafe to eat.
  • Negligence: Negligence requires you to prove that the food manufacturer did not exercise due care when producing the food that gave you an E.coli infection. This can include practices like failing to adequately clean meat grinders, failing to pasteurize milk properly, or failing to supervise employees to ensure that they are growing food in a sanitary manner. However, many practices in the food industry that may seem unsanitary to the casual observer are considered standard practices. Following these practices, even if they cause illness, may remove liability from a manufacturer.

Many people have sued food producers in the past for E.Coli infections. The lawsuits are complicated and can vary depending on where the victim was located and where the company was located. Be sure to consult with an attorney that specializes in food poisoning cases. She will be able to explain your options to you, including any rights you may have under previous settlements.

Preventing E. coli O157:H7 Infection

Even though E.coli victims may sue food producers for their injuries, it's best not to get sick in the first place. Here are some simple steps to help prevent E. coli O157:H7 infection:

  • Handle raw meat with care: Keep raw meat separate from ready-to-eat foods. Wash hands and anything else that came in contact with raw meat with hot soapy water. Never place cooked hamburgers or ground beef on the unwashed plate that held raw patties. Wash meat thermometers in between tests of patties that require further cooking.
  • Cook all ground beef and hamburger thoroughly: Because ground beef can turn brown before disease-causing bacteria are killed, use a digital instant-read thermometer to ensure thorough cooking. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services publishes minimum safe cooking temperatures for many kinds of food; be sure to keep this list handy while cooking meat.
  • Drink only pasteurized milk, juice, or cider: Most commercial juice with an extended shelf-life that is sold at room temperature although this is generally not indicated on the label.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables under running water (especially those that will not be cooked): Remove the outer leaves of leafy vegetables. Persons at high risk of complications from food borne illness may choose to consume only cooked vegetables and peeled fruits.
  • Avoid swallowing lake or pool water while swimming.
  • Practice good hygiene: Make sure that persons in your family suffering from diarrhea wash their hands carefully with soap after bowel movements and that they avoid swimming in public pools or lakes, sharing baths with others, and preparing food for others. Be sure to thoroughly clean hands after changing diapers as well.

For more information, see FindLaw's sections on Product Liability and Litigation.

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