Increase in food poisoning cases

Public urged to take care when cooking
  • Deborah Condon

People are being urged to take extra care when handling and preparing food as there has been an increase in E.coli infections in recent weeks.

E.coli is a bacterium that lives in the intestines of healthy humans and animals. Verocytotoxigenic Escherichia coli (VTEC) is a particular type of E.coli that lives in the gut of healthy sheep and cattle. VTEC is a common cause of food poisoning, which can lead to symptoms such as bloody diarrhoea and abdominal cramps.

While patients usually recover within five to 10 days, some people, especially young children and older people, can suffer a complication called haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), in which the red blood cells are destroyed and the kidneys fail. This happens in 5-8% of cases.

According to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC), almost 100 cases of VTEC have been notified over the last 10 days, which is three times higher than the figure for this time last year.

It is reminding people of the importance of always washing your hands before and after handling food, and always washing fruit and vegetables before consuming.

It is also reminding people of the importance of ensuring that minced meats are cooked all the way through.

"Eating meat, especially minced beef, that has not been thoroughly cooked all the way through to kill these VTEC bugs can cause food poisoning. Therefore, to ensure that minced meat burgers are safe to eat, they should be cooked to a core temperature of 75°C.

"VTEC can also be found in the stools of an infected person and can be passed from person to person if hygiene or hand-washing habits are inadequate. This is particularly common among toddlers who are not toilet trained. Family members and playmates of these children are at high risk of becoming infected," the HPSC said.

According to the HSE's assistant national director of public health, Dr Kevin Kelleher, while investigations have not identified a specific reason for the increase in VTEC infections, the current good weather probably has a role to play.

"We would like to remind people to be careful about food safety during this heatwave to protect themselves against food poisoning. This hot weather provides the right conditions for bacteria such as VTEC to grow and multiply on foods, which can lead to high numbers of cases of food poisoning in adults and children.

"Not washing hands after handling raw meat, not washing fruits and vegetables and undercooking minced meats, such as beef burgers, are common ways of getting food poisoning at this time of year," he commented.

The HPSC and Safefood recommends four simple steps to reduce the risk of food poisoning:

-Clean - always wash your hands before and after preparing, handling and eating food, after using the toilet or after playing with animals
-Cook - make sure that food is cooked all the way through in order to destroy any harmful bacteria that might be present
-Chill - keep food cool in order to prevent bad bacteria from growing. Make sure that your fridge is at the correct temperature to keep cold foods chilled (5°C or below)
-Separate - to prevent cross-contamination, always separate raw and cooked foods during storage and cooking and never let raw food, for example raw meat, come into contact with ready-to-eat foods, such as salads.

For more information on VTEC, click here


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