How worried should you be about E.coli right now?

As products are recalled because of an outbreak, a scientist and a doctor discuss the implications for public health.

(Alamy Stock Photo)

A number of sandwiches, wraps and salads have been recalled as a precaution after more than 200 cases of E.coli were reported.

Tests have shown the majority of the cases reported across the UK between May 25 and June 4 were part of a single outbreak, linked to a nationally distributed food item or items. By June 11, the number of cases associated with the outbreak was 211, and of 160 cases, 42% were admitted to hospital.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) said the latest recall is by manufacturer THIS!, which has recalled its vegan chicken and bacon wrap, sold only at WH Smith. The recall comes just days after manufacturers Greencore Group and Samworth Brothers Manton Wood recalled sandwiches, wraps and salads because of a potential link to the E.coli outbreak.

Darren Whitby, head of incidents at the FSA, said the recalls were a “precautionary measure”, and added:  “This is a complex investigation, and we have worked swiftly with the relevant businesses and the local authorities concerned to narrow down the wide range of foods consumed to a small number of salad leaf products that have been used in sandwiches and wraps.”

Experts say the E.coli bacteria, which is commonly found in the gut and faeces of many animals – particularly cows – and humans, is usually harmless, but occasionally it can cause symptoms including diarrhoea (sometimes bloody), stomach cramps and fever, lasting anywhere from one to 14 days.

And doctors point out that a small number of people with E.coli can develop a serious condition called haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), which can sometimes – though rarely – lead to kidney failure and death.

The product recalls involve certain sandwiches, wraps and salads sold at many major supermarkets and retailers including Sainsbury’s, Asda, Aldi, Morrisons, Co-op, Boots, Tesco, One Stop and WH Smith.

How do you prevent E.coli?

The NHS says E.coli, which is sometimes called STEC (Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli), can be caught by eating contaminated food including raw leafy vegetables or undercooked meat, touching infected animals, contact with people who have the illness, drinking water from an inadequately treated water supply, or swimming or playing in contaminated ponds or streams.

So washing your hands regularly, keeping food preparation areas clean and serving food at the right temperatures, is important.

Steve Busby, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Birmingham who studies bacteria including E.coli, says: “People need to understand the big picture about E.coli – we all have it, and it’s also in the intestinal tracts of cattle, chickens, dogs and all domestic animals and pets, and 99.99% of the bacteria are totally harmless.

“But just occasionally you do get a strain that has a genetic determinant that can cause harm.”

He says cooking food and taking care to stay away from animal poo usually protects us from harmful E.coli, but occasionally some gets through our defences, as has happened in the current outbreak, which he says the FSA have done a “superb job” of managing.

“Most people who come across one of the harmless strains will probably not know about it, or you might spend the night in the bathroom,” he says. “But if you’re a child, if you’re immunocompromised or elderly, that’s when it can be life-threatening.

Is it anything to worry about?

“Should we be worried about the current outbreak? Yes, of course we’re worried about the outbreak. We’re always concerned about things that cause harm to humans, but we should be concerned and not worried, because it’s not something we’re going to get rid of.

“History tells us that 99.99% of these things are totally harmless – you’ve got more chance of being run over by a bus than being killed by E.coli.”

However, Dr Babak Ashrafi, a Superdrug Online Doctor, says the recent outbreak is a “significant public health concern”, particularly for vulnerable groups such as young children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems.

He says: “While there’s no need to panic, as public health authorities have taken swift action, issuing alerts and recalling potentially contaminated products, it’s important that people stay informed, are extra-cautious with regard to food handling, and remain vigilant for any symptoms over the coming weeks.”

Ashrafi explains that this particular strain of E-coli produces the Shiga toxin, which can lead to severe gastrointestinal symptoms such as intense abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhoea, and vomiting, usually within two to eight days of exposure.

But he stresses: “The greatest concern lies in the potential development of HUS, a serious complication posing a particular threat to young children and the elderly. HUS can lead to kidney failure and anaemia, which will require urgent care.”

How should an E.coli infection be treated?

Ashrafi says that while most cases of the infection resolve on their own, it’s important to get medical advice if you or a family member have symptoms. He says the most important treatment is drinking plenty of fluids and taking rehydration solutions if needed, and resting.

But he warns: “Antibiotics are generally not recommended for treating STEC infections as they can potentially worsen the release of toxins and increase the risk of HUS.”