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Pathogenic E. coli or 'STEC' in food


Last updated: 22 December 2020

What is it?

  • E. coli (short for Escherichia coli) is a type of bacteria that can be found in the gut of people as well as many animals, especially cattle and sheep
  • Most E. coli are harmless, but some can cause illness – these are known as pathogenic E. coli or STEC (short for shiga-toxigenic E. coli)
  • Pathogenic E. coli can get into soil, water and food from the faeces (poo) of animals, for example from livestock or animal manure
  • Foods at higher risk of contamination include ground meat (especially beef mince and salami), unpasteurised milk products and leafy salads and sprouted seeds

What’s the risk?

  • Pathogenic E. coli can cause a type of gastro called STEC gastroenteritis
  • In some cases it can cause a life-threatening illness called haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS)
  • Anyone can get infected with pathogenic E. coli but young children, the elderly and people with weak immune systems (e.g. cancer patients) are more likely to get seriously ill

Reduce your risk

  • Cook raw minced meat (burgers, sausages etc.) thoroughly (no visible pink meat)
  • Wash raw fruit and vegetables thoroughly under running water
  • Wash your hands with soap and dry them before preparing or eating food
  • Use separate cutting boards and knives for raw and ready-to-eat food
  • Store raw meats below ready-to-eat food in the fridge
  • Avoid unpasteurised milk products.

Symptoms of illness

  • STEC gastroenteritis symptoms usually start 2-10 days after eating contaminated food and include diarrhoea (sometimes bloody), abdominal cramps, nausea and vomiting which lasts for 5-10 days
  • HUS can develop about a week after the diarrhoea started and symptoms include reduced urine, rash, reduced consciousness, bruising and exhaustion
  • HUS can lead to kidney failure, high blood pressure, seizures, anaemia and death


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