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Recent E. coli breakouts raise concern

E. coli outbreaks have been found twice in Utah in recent weeks; once in North Ogden and once in Hyrum. The Hyrum outbreak infected five people; health officials weren’t able to identify the source, reports Heidi Toth of the Utah Daily Herald.

The North Ogden outbreak, resolved earlier this week, originated from contaminated lettuce in a Wendy’s restaurant. Three people in that outbreak ended up with hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can be life-threatening and leave permanent damage.

Fortunately, said Terry Beebe, director for environmental health at the Utah County Health Department, good food handling, lots of hand washing and taking precautions can minimize the risk. Outbreaks can happen, and do; the last one in Utah County was several years ago at the state Developmental Center in American Fork.

About 73,000 Americans get sick and 61 die every year from infections caused by the bacteria, which can be spread in a number of ways, including when infected ground beef is not fully cooked or when it comes into contact with other food, when raw milk is infected by cow manure or equipment, when sewage gets into water supplies or swimming pools or when feces gets on a person’s hands who then handles food without washing. There are a number of different strains; the most common of the infecting types is O157:H7.

The health department has a number of procedures in place to avoid outbreaks, including semiannual inspections of every restaurant in the county and more if there’s reason to suspect a problem. Utah County implemented a no-bare-hand-contact policy about a year ago among restaurants to minimize the possibility. Health inspectors also check were the food is coming from, that dishes and countertops are being properly washed and food is cooked to the proper temperatures.

People also need to be aware of the E. coli risk in their homes. Beebe advises lots of hand-washing while cooking, knowing where the food came from and keeping kitchen implements clean. He emphasized that since most transmissions of the bacteria were fecal to oral, washing hands, while not perfect, was a good way to minimize risk.

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