Five easy steps to help keep E. coli off your plate when eating out

Don’t let that take-out meal take you out of commission for good!

If you’ve been following the news, you’ve probably heard all about the dangerous E. coli outbreaks linked to Chipotle restaurants in nine states. Lots of people who just swung by for a cheap burrito ended up with vomiting, diarrhea and even a hospital stay in the bargain.

But, when it comes to E. coli, Chipotle doesn’t exactly have the market cornered. You can run into contaminated food at just about any restaurant — even some of the more expensive places that we’d all swear are safe.

And while you can’t control everything that goes on in a restaurant kitchen, there are five simple precautions you can take to keep yourself and your family safe when eating out.

Eat, drink and be wary
E. coli became a household name back in 1992 when hamburgers sold at Jack in the Box killed four and sickened hundreds.

Turns out that the meat was contaminated and the restaurant chain wasn’t cooking hamburgers long enough to kill the pathogens.

But meat isn’t the only thing that can harbor E. coli. Raw fruits, veggies, sprouts, and almost any food not cooked to a certain temperature is at risk. And because the pathogen can survive on surfaces like cutting boards for weeks, cross-contamination is a big problem.

And while the symptoms of an E. coli infections can mimic other forms of food poisoning, with this bug it’s urgent to get medical help quickly.

Symptoms typically begin two to five days after the initial infection and can include sudden cramps and abdominal pain that’s followed by diarrhea. If you have any bloody or severe diarrhea, you should immediately get to your doctor or the ER.

One of the big dangers from E. coli is hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). That hits around 10 percent of those who get the infection and it can cause kidney failure. That’s why you don’t want to waste time self-medicating if you think you’ve been hit with this bug.

So obviously, E. coli is something you want to do anything you can to steer clear of!

While we can’t check on every little detail while dining out (and they’ll practically tackle you if you try to inspect the kitchen at most restaurants), here are some easy steps you can take to keep this bug off your plate:

  1. Take “rare” off the menu: Undercooked beef — especially hamburgers — should be a thing of the past. Hamburgers are tricky (they need to be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 160° F), so you definitely don’t want to be seeing any pink in the middle of that burger!
  2. Keep on driving past the buffet: Buffet restaurants practically lend themselves to risky eating, especially where E. coli is concerned. In addition to low food temps and the lines full of coughing kids, the foods regularly spill out of their containers and come into contact with each other. That makes the risk of cross-contamination high.
  3. Just say no to sprouts: Sprouts have been called the perfect breeding ground for E. coli. While any raw veggie can harbor the bug, the way sprouts are grown makes them the ideal target for pathogens.
  4. Check the certificate: All restaurants in the U.S. should be displaying some type of food service certificate — along with a health department rating. This should be put up where the public can easily see it. So if you don’t see one, or if the restaurant didn’t get a top rating, find another place to dine.
  5. Temperature matters: Hot foods should be hot, and cold foods cold. Tepid should not be the temperature of anything you eat. If your meal arrives less than fully hot — or if it’s a refrigerator item, ice cold — send it back. It may be a bit of an inconvenience, but it’s nothing compared to being laid up by E. coli poisoning for days.

Sources:
“Chipotle E. Coli cases rise, with 5 more ill in Midwest” Stephanie Strom, December 21, 2015, The New York Times, nytimes.com