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Food Safety Savvy: E. coli 0157:H7 

By Jean Dible, GA Food Safety Professionals

Your Food Safety Connection


Since the E. coli foodborne outbreak has been in the media news so much recently, it is important to discuss E-coli with the General Aviation industry. The probability of eating contaminated food from any source on the ground, or purchasing contaminated food from a catering company or restaurant for aviation passengers and crew has always been a threat and continues to be one. E. coli bacteria is not the only food safety threat to be aware of. There are many other pathogen possibilities in all types of foods purchased for the aviation industry.

E-coli bacteria were discovered in the human colon in 1885 by a German bacteriologist named Escherich. Dr. Escherich also showed that certain strains of the bacteria were responsible for infant diarrhea and gastroenteritis. There are hundreds of strains of the bacterium Escherichia coli, so numbers and letters are assigned to the different types of e-coli, which distinguishes the dangerous E. coli 0157:H7 from other types of E-coli.

The seriousness of E. coli 0157:H7 is a result of its ability to produce Shiga-like toxins, which cause damage to endothelial cells in the pancreas, brain, and other organs, thus inhibiting those organs ‘ ability to function. In healthy people, the symptoms of E-coli 0157:H7 usually culminate with severe bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps, with the illness resolving itself in 5 to 10 days without treatment. However, in about 2% to 7% of infections (usually in children under 5-years and the elderly, who would probably be a high percentage of the CEO’s flying in General Aviation aircraft) , the pathogen causes hemolytic uremic syndrome, a serious and life-threatening condition in which the red blood cells are destroyed and the kidneys fail.

The CDC (Center for Disease Control & Prevention) in Atlanta, GA estimates that 73,000 cases of E-coli 0157:H7 occur annually in the United States. Each year, 2,100 Americans are hospitalized, and 61-people die as a direct result of E. coli infections

E-coli 0157:H7 was first recognized as a foodborne pathogen in 1982 during an outbreak of hemorrhagic colitis (6), which was associated with consumption of hamburgers from a major chain restaurant in the United States. Outbreaks from this strain of E-coli have also involved unpasteurized apple juice and orange juice, unpasteurized milk, alfalfa sprouts, lettuce, improperly cured dry salami, undercooked ground beef and non-chlorinated water.

Outbreaks of E-coli can also be from person-to-person transmission of the bacteria in homes and in settings like daycare, hospitals, nursing homes, or from animal-to-human exposure, such as in petting zoos. Since humans carry E-coli in their colons, using the bathroom and not washing the hands sufficiently before handling food or other objects can also spread the E-coli bacteria to others. Dirty human hands, which handle food of any type, are a major threat to food safety on the ground or in the air. Long fingernails on flight attendants are reservoirs for the spreading of all types of bacteria. Disposable gloves are essential in handling any type of ready-to-eat food on the ground or in the air.

Unless the reader has had down time on a tropical island for the last two months, you have heard about the E-coli outbreak in bagged Spinach and lettuce throughout the news media. These E-coli outbreaks have brought the industrial agriculture industry and produce farmers to their knees. More outbreaks of E-coli disease are now being traced to produce than to meat, poultry, fish, eggs and milk combined.

Many of the scientific community have their own theory as to why the E-coli outbreaks are occurring, but no one has an answer to the problem, as of this writing. Several of the scientific theories have been that the pathogen was absorbed into the leaves of the lettuce or spinach through the plant’s root system because of being picked up through contaminated groundwater; the plastic bags may have the microbe inside the bags, dirty processing equipment; contaminated hands from farm workers, etc. The bottom line is that this is a wake-up call for all Americans throughout the United States and abroad concerning food safety issues.

The following ways are recommended for guarding yourself, family, flight crew and passengers aboard General Aviation aircraft against ingesting E. coli from any of the sources mentioned already:

  • Either cook, or make sure ground beef is cooked thoroughly. Ground Beef turns brown quickly, while cooking, giving the appearance that it is well cooked, but the E-coli disease causing bacteria may not be destroyed yet. Always make sure a thermometer is used while cooking ground beef. The minimum internal temperature of the cooked ground beef should be from 155 to 160 degrees F to insure that the E-coli bacteria is destroyed. Wash meat thermometers between testing of ground beef patties, or use a disposable thermometer one time, while testing Ground beef, and then trash it.

  • Avoid cross contamination of bacteria in your kitchen or the aircraft galley. Keep raw meat separate from ready-to-eat foods.

  • Wash hands, counters, and utensils with hot soapy water after they touch raw meat. Sanitize all areas with a chemical sanitizer afterwards.

  • Drink only bottled water, purchased in the United States, when you fly international trips. Above all, be very careful with the treatment of you bags of ice and ice drawers in the aircraft. Many different types of bacteria can live in cold environments. Dirty hands holding an ice scoop by the handle and then allowing the entire scoop to fall down in the ice is just asking for trouble in the aircraft. Ice machines in the FBO’s and hangers are also another viable source for bacteria growth.

  • Cut fruits and vegetables, which are purchased from a catering company or restaurant, should be kept cold at all times. Many people assume that because some fruits and vegetables are displayed without refrigeration, that all produce is safe at room temperature. Once a fruit or vegetable is cut or has been pealed, the opportunity for contamination increases, allowing pathogens to spread from and to the cut surface. It is important to treat cut or bagged produce the way that meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy products are treated to insure the produce’s safety.

  • Before eating, wash all produce thoroughly in a stream of water, which includes most fruits. Save your money concerning produce washes; they do not claim to kill harmful bacteria. Discard any areas of produce showing even the slightest evidence of spoilage.

  • If you are personally gun-shy concerning pre-cut bagged produce, you will need to go back to using regular untreated head lettuce, which you will have to wash and cut your self. Dr. Michael P. Doyle, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety, recommends extra precautions now that E. coli has become such a problem. Dr. Doyle recommends discarding the outer leaves of any head lettuce and then washing your hands with hot, soapy water before removing the rest of the leaves and washing them individually. Catering companies and restaurants may or may not clean produce correctly, which is a chance that you will have to take when ordering food for an aircraft.

  • Not only do you have to be careful about raw meat contaminating ready-to-eat food, but also keeping unwashed salad greens and utensils away from any food that will not be cooked. In the grand scheme of things, E-coli is still a lingering threat, but chances of getting sick from E-coli in lettuce or spinach are still small considering that over six million packages of cut greens are sold daily in the United States, and less than 200 illnesses have been reported, so far! E-coli are not the only lingering threat to food safety; you can never let down your guard concerning any type of food safety for yourself, your family, or your General Aviation passengers and crew.


  • CDC: Center For Disease Control: Atlanta, GA

  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration

  • The New York Times (9/27/06)

  • ServSafe Essentials – Fourth Edition

Author Information:


Jean Dible is president and founder of GA Food Safety Professionals, a mobile food & alcohol safety training school in Atlanta, GA. Jean is a contributing writer to the Corporate Flight Attendant Community website; her Your Food Safety Connection column appears here on a bi-monthly basis.