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Cooking Matters Michigan

Empowering families with the skills, confidence and knowledge to prepare healthy and affordable meals

E. coli: The importance of food safety

jhartrick

As a result of eating a grilled hamburger, Stephanie Smith was struck by E. coli, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. Photo credit: New York Times Did you read the recent New York Times article "Woman's Shattered Life Shows Ground Beef Inspection Flaws"?  A young woman named Stephanie Smith who worked as a children's dance instructor fell ill to a severe form of food borne illness caused by E coli. Where did the illness come from? The Times wrote:

Ms. Smith, 22, was found to have a severe form of food-borne illness caused by E. coli, which Minnesota officials traced to the hamburger that her mother had grilled for their Sunday dinner in early fall 2007.

“I ask myself every day, ‘Why me?’ and ‘Why from a hamburger?’ ”Ms. Smith said. In the simplest terms, she ran out of luck in a food-safety game of chance whose rules and risks are not widely known.

What is E coli?

According to the CDC, E. coli "are a large and diverse group of bacteria. Although most strains of E. coli are harmless, others can make you sick. Some kinds of E. coli can cause diarrhea, while others cause urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia, and other illnesses. Still other kinds of E. coli are used as markers for water contamination—so you might hear about E. coli being found in drinking water, which are not themselves harmful, but indicate the water is contaminated."

Protecting yourself

Smith's tragic story emphasizes why it's not only important to be conscious of where your food comes from but also to remember the basics of kitchen safety to avoid contamination.

Here are some more things to be mindful of from the article:

  • The Times reported the pathogen that struck Smith was so powerful that her illness could have started “with just a few cells left on a counter. ‘In a warm kitchen, E. coli cells will double every 45 minutes,’ said Dr. Mansour Samadpour, a microbiologist who runs IEH Laboratories in Seattle, one of the meat industry’s largest testing firms.”
  • The Times did a test with some help from the labs and found that E. coli remained on the cutting board even after being washed with soap. Large amounts of bacteria were picked up by a towel.
  • Speaking of cutting boards, the article mentioned people should use bleach to sterilize cutting boards.

Through our cooking-based nutrition classes, Operation Frontline Detroit teaches participants the basics of kitchen safety and keeping food safe (i.e. cooking to proper temperature). One of the easiest and most effective ways to prevent the spread of germs is proper hand washing.