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Health officials are looking for the cause behind an E. coli outbreak. Getty Images

At least 196 people in 10 states have been infected with a strain of Escherichia coli after eating ground beef at home and in restaurants, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this week.

At least 28 of those people have been hospitalized. No deaths have been reported.

The first illness linked to this outbreak occurred on March 1.

Kentucky, Georgia, and Tennessee have seen the highest number of cases. Other states affected are Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio, and Virginia.

Since it takes an average of two to three weeks after a person becomes ill with E. coli for their illness to be reported, the number of cases may still rise in the coming weeks.

Preliminary information suggests that ground beef is the source of the outbreak, said the CDC. But the agency hasn’t yet identified a common supplier, distributor, or brand of ground beef.

However, a Georgia meat producer is recalling more than 113,000 pounds of raw ground beef products that may be contaminated with E. coli O103, the same strain of bacteria identified in the current outbreak, reported the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service on Tuesday.

K2D Foods, doing business as Colorado Premium Foods in Carrollton, Georgia, is recalling the ground beef after some of its products tested positive for E. coli O103.

This was collected from an unopened package at a restaurant in Tennessee as part of an ongoing investigation being conducted by the CDC and the Tennessee Department of Health.

The ground beef products were shipped in two 24-pound vacuum-packed packages in cardboard boxes containing raw “GROUND BEEF PUCK” with “Use Thru” dates of 4/14/19, 4/17/19, 4/20/19, 4/23/19, 4/28/19, and 4/30/19, reports the USDA.

The products were shipped to distributors in Port Orange, Florida, and Norcross, Georgia, to be sent to restaurants.

Benjamin Chapman, PhD, an associate professor of food safety at North Carolina State University, said “E. coli O103 is one of the newer pathogens that we’ve started looking for more intensely over the last 10 years, and really over the last six or seven years.”

Although less common than other strains, it’s still a “risky pathogen” that can cause illness.

“This particular strain of E. coli is particularly serious as it produces a shigella toxin which can cause, among other things, hospitalizations and hemolytic uremic syndrome, a potentially life-threatening complication,” said Catherine Troisi, PhD, MS, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health.

The CDC isn’t recommending at this time that consumers avoid eating ground beef or discard what they have at home.

But Troisi says if the agency finds a link to a common source of contamination, those recommendations may change.

Chapman says if that occurs, it would be a good time for consumers to make sure they don’t have any of the affected products, including in their freezer.

“Although we think of meat as a perishable food,” said Chapman, “it’s pretty common to have foods in your freezer for quite some time.”

The USDA posts food product recalls on its website and through email alerts.

Infection with a harmful E. coli strain can cause symptoms such as severe stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting. Some people may also have a mild fever.

And don’t think you’re out of the woods if you haven’t gotten sick within 24 hours of eating ground beef. People typically start to feel sick three to four days after eating or drinking something contaminated with the bacteria.

The severity of the illness ranges from mild to severe or life-threatening. Most people get better within five to seven days.

However, 5 to 10 percent of people develop hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can cause the kidneys to stop working.

No cases of kidney failure have been reported in the current outbreak, said the CDC.

While the agency has its own procedures for identifying the source of foodborne illness, it also relies on consumers for information.

“If you think you or someone you know got sick from food, even if you don’t know what food it was, report it to your local health department,” said Troisi. “This can help public health officials identify a foodborne disease outbreak and keep others from getting sick.”

The CDC is reminding consumers and restaurants to handle ground beef properly and cook it thoroughly to avoid foodborne illness.

“When it comes to ground beef, I always treat it like it has a pathogen in it,” said Chapman. “I try to not spread any juices from the raw beef around my kitchen. And when I cook ground beef, I use a food thermometer.”

Ground beef should be heated to an internal temperature of 160°F (71°C) to kill any heat-sensitive bacteria that are present.

Some bacteria produce toxins that aren’t eliminated by heating, so Troisi also recommends that people take other precautions to protect themselves from foodborne illnesses, such as:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soapy water when preparing food.
  • Wash kitchen surfaces and cooking utensils with a mild bleach solution.
  • Rinse fruits and vegetables under running water.
  • Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs away from other foods, both in the shopping cart and in the refrigerator.
  • Use separate cutting boards and plates for raw meat, poultry, and seafood.
  • Chill leftover food promptly within two hours, or within one hour if it’s hotter than 90°F (32°C).