How to avoid E.coli from salads and sandwiches

Production line of pre-packaged convenience food. Over the shoulder view, a woman wrapping ready to eat salad in a wrapping machine with cling foil. This image is part of a series.
Some pre-packed food items containing salad leaves, like sandwiches, salads and wraps, have been recalled due to concerns over E. coli contamination. (Getty Images)

A number of popular pre-packed food items, including sandwiches, wraps, and salads that are sold in major supermarkets and retailers have been recalled over concerns of potential contamination with E. coli.

The most recent food manufacturer to recall an item was THIS!, which has recalled its plant-based chicken and bacon wrap, only sold at WH Smith. Other suppliers, including Greencore Group and Samworth Brothers Manton Wood, have recalled at least 60 types of pre-packed items as a precautionary step.

It comes after the UK Health Security Agency issued a warning about an E. coli outbreak in the country. Cases associated with the Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) have risen to 211 as of 11 June, with 147 located in England, 27 in Wales, 35 in Scotland, and two in Northern Ireland.

It is understood that the contamination is linked to specific food items that contain salad leaves, which have been identified as a common factor among those affected.

E. coli is a bacteria usually found in our gut. While most strains are harmless, STEC can cause severe food poisoning, resulting in symptoms like diarrhoea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and fever.

Pre-packaged sandwiches displayed in a commercial refrigerator
Pre-packed sandwiches, wraps and salad may contain salad leaves that have been contaminated with E. coli. (Getty Images)

The food items that have been recalled have been recalled as a precautionary measure, and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) does not warn against buying pre-packed sandwiches and salads at this time.

However, if you have recently purchased any of the products on the recall list, the FSA warns that you should not eat them to avoid getting sick with E. coli.

In a statement, Darren Whitby, head of incidents at the FSA, said: “Sandwich manufacturers are taking a precautionary measure to recall various sandwiches, wraps, subs and rolls in response to findings from investigations by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), Food Standards Scotland (FSS) and UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) who are working to identify the cause of an ongoing outbreak caused by Shiga toxin-producing E.coli (STEC). The full list of products can be found in the product recall information notice (PRIN).

“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, wraps, subs and rolls. Following a thorough food chain analysis, these products are being recalled as a precaution.

“Infections caused by STEC bacteria can cause severe bloody diarrhoea and, in some cases, more serious complications. We therefore advise any consumers who have any of these products not to eat them.

“The FSA is here to ensure that food is safe. If there are products on the market that are not, we won't hesitate to take action to remove them.”

Cropped shot of young woman preparing tasty salad in her kitchen.
Salad leaves can be easily contaminated with E. coli. (Getty Images)

Most people may think that E. coli is spread through the consumption of raw or undercooked ground meat products or raw milk.

But while this is common, salad leaves are particularly susceptible to contamination with the harmful bacteria, says Dr Chris Papadopoulos, Principal Lecturer in Public Health at the University of Bedfordshire.

“This susceptibility is due to several factors,” he explains. “Firstly, salad leaves are often grown in open fields where they can come into contact with contaminated water, soil, or animal faeces.

“Secondly, the large surface area and porous nature of salad leaves provide an ideal environment for bacteria to adhere to and multiply.

“Thirdly, salad leaves are typically consumed raw, meaning they do not undergo cooking, which would kill harmful bacteria. This increases the risk of pathogens like E. coli being present on the leaves when consumed.

“Finally, salad leaves go through multiple handling steps from harvesting to packaging, increasing the risk of contamination at various points along the supply chain.”

Dr Papadapoulos outlines the precautions people can take to minimise the risk of getting sick with E. coli.

1. Wash your hands

“It is crucial to practise good hand hygiene by washing hands thoroughly with soap and warm water, especially after using the toilet, handling raw food, and before eating or preparing food.”

2. Wash your produce

“All fruits and vegetables should be properly washed under running water before eating, cutting, or cooking, even if the produce will be peeled, to prevent transferring contaminants from the surface to the inside.”

3. Cook your meat to the right temperature

“Cooking meats to the appropriate internal temperature is also essential to kill any harmful bacteria.”

4. Avoid cross-contamination

“Cross-contamination can be avoided by using separate cutting boards and utensils for raw meat and other foods.”

As a further precaution, he adds that people who have experienced symptoms of gastrointestinal illness should avoid preparing food for others until at least 48 hours after the symptoms have stopped.

Dr Papadapoulos also emphasises the importance of “regular cleaning and disinfection of kitchen surfaces, utensils, and cutting boards can also help prevent the spread of bacteria”.

“Finally, staying informed about food recalls and avoiding products that have been identified as potentially contaminated is also important,” he adds.

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