Published on 02/25/98

UGA Trainings Help Day Care Workers Avoid E. coli

Hand washing, thoroughly cooking meats and using pasteurized juice and milk are the best ways to avoid food-borne illness like Monday's Spokane, Wash., outbreak, said a University of Georgia professor.

Press reports say seven young children, including five who attended the same Spokane day care center, were infected with the E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria. One child was hospitalized.

Judy Harrison, a foods and nutrition professor with the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences, has developed two training programs that focus on protecting young children and older adults from such illnesses.

"Almost any food can cause illness if it's mishandled," Harrison said. "And mishandling often has to do with people not being careful about washing their hands."

Adults aren't the only ones who have to be careful about washing hands, she said. Children may arrive at a day care center harboring pathogens such as E. coli without knowing it.

"E. coli 1057:H7 infection begins with diarrhea, as do most food-borne illnesses," Harrison said. "If you have a child who's harboring an organism and he goes to the bathroom and doesn't thoroughly wash his hands, the organism could be passed to other children.

"It could be spread through hand-to-hand or hand-to-mouth contact," she said. "Or it could be through the contamination getting on a toy or other object. It's unclear just how long the pathogen could survive on toys or other objects. But it could be there long enough to infect another child."

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An E. coli bacterium. (Photo courtesy the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Cooking meat thoroughly, too, and using pasteurized juice and egg products at day care centers or programs for the elderly can prevent the outbreak of food-borne illnesses, Harrison said.

"Cases of E. coli 0157:H7 have been attributed to children drinking unpasteurized juice," she said. "E. coli 0157:H7 has been found to be more acid-tolerant than some pathogens. It can survive several days in things like unpasteurized juice."

E. coli hasn't been shown to be a problem in egg products. But salmonella, which also can cause severe illnesses, is found in eggs. Pasteurizing of egg products and thorough cooking destroys salmonella.

Harrison said the best way to make sure meat is thoroughly cooked is to use a meat thermometer.

"We used to say if there wasn't any pink left and the juices ran clear, you could consider the meat thoroughly cooked," she said. "However, studies have shown that some ground beef will lose its pink color before it reaches 160 degrees. That's the level necessary to kill E. coli 0157:H7 in beef."

Harrison's training programs are available through county Extension Service FACS agents. The same agents can provide charts of the temperatures needed to kill food-borne pathogens.

Denise Horton is the public relations coordinator for the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences.