Escherichia coli O157:H7 is a Gram-negative rod. It does not form spores, is motile and facultatively anaerobic.

Although the consumption of Escherichia coli may not lead to any apparent ill effects, the presence of the organism can suggest faecal contamination of the food. However there are certain serotypes of E. coli, known as verotoxigenic E. coli (VTEC), which may cause diarrhoeal disease, or more serious forms of illness. VTEC produce toxins referred to as verotoxins because they affect Vero cells (a cell-line originating from the kidney of the Green Monkey). The main serotype of verotoxin producing E. coli is Escherichia coli O157 .

VTEC can cause diarrhoea but in its more serious form, the illness can cause abdominal cramps, bloody stools and vomiting. There is the risk of acute renal failure in children, which can be fatal. In the USA, the mortality rate is approximately 3%. Many victims suffer from long-term kidney problems.

It is thought that the intestine of dairy cattle is the most important source of VTEC, although it may occur in the intestine of other animals. The organism is spread through faecal contamination of water and food, and from person-to-person transmission.

VTEC has been isolated (albeit rarely) from raw milk, ground beef products (notably beef burgers), pork, poultry, lamb and apple cider.

Escherichia coli O157 can grow between 7º and 43ºC, with an optimum of 37ºC. Therefore conventional detection procedures for E. coli in foods are unlikely to detect the organism as these use temperatures in the range of 44 - 45.5ºC. The organism survives well at low temperatures.

 

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