The HSE Health Protection Surveillance Centre has advised the public to take extra care when handling and preparing food following an increase in the number of VTEC (E. coli) infections in recent weeks.
VTEC are a type of E. coli that can live in the gut of healthy cattle and sheep. It is a common cause of food poisoning which can lead to serious complications. Always wash your hands before and after handling food, wash your fruit and vegetables thoroughly before eating them and always ensure minced meats are cooked all the way through.
A study carried out in Ireland in 2013 showed that raw minced beef burgers and minced beef samples from retail and catering premises were contaminated with VTEC which was detected in 2.5% of samples. Eating meat (especially minced beef) that has not been thoroughly cooked all the way through to kill these 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. Any vegetables or fruit that have been contaminated by animal faeces and which are not washed properly before consumption can also cause infection.
The number of VTEC cases notified in Ireland in the past 10 days (96) is over three times as high as this time last year. Commenting on the figures, Dr Kevin Kelleher, Assistant National Director, Public Health, said that “While investigations haven’t identified a specific reason for the increase in cases 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.”
The symptoms of VTEC infection vary but often include bloody diarrhoea and abdominal cramps. Symptoms usually pass within five to ten days. However, VTEC infection can also cause a more serious complication called Haemolytic Uraemic Syndrome (HUS) in up to 10% of cases which can lead to kidney failure, and occasionally even death. HUS is more common in children under five and the elderly. It is important to visit your doctor if you develop bloody diarrhoea.
There are four simple steps from SafeFood that you can take to prevent food poisoning:
- Clean – always wash your hands before and after preparing, handling and eating food, after visiting the toilet or after playing with pets or 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 – aim to keep your fridge at 5°C or below.
- Separate to prevent cross-contamination – 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 about VTEC see the Health Protection Surveillance Centre’s website
For more information on food safety see Safefood’s website
Last updated on: 04 / 07 / 2018