Escherichia coli infections

A pavement pedlar selling leaf vegetables Faecal contamination of vegetables is one of the primary sources of E-coli infections. Photo credit: WHO

Escherichia coli (abbreviated as E. coli) are a large and diverse group of bacteria commonly found in the gut of humans and warm-blooded animals. Most strains of E. coli are harmless however, specific strains such as enterohaemorrhagic E. coli, can cause severe foodborne disease. 

An increasing number of outbreaks are associated with the consumption of fruits and vegetables (sprouts, spinach, lettuce, coleslaw, salad) whereby contamination may be due to contact with faeces from domestic or wild animals at some stage during cultivation or handling. Waterborne transmission has been reported, both from contaminated drinking water and from recreational waters. Person-to-person contact is an important mode of transmission through the oral-faecal route. An asymptomatic carrier state has been reported, where individuals show no clinical signs of disease but are capable of infecting others.

The prevention of infection requires control measures at all stages of the food chain, from agricultural production on the farm to processing, manufacturing and preparation of foods in both commercial establishments and household kitchens.