Foods & Pregnancy

Escherichia coli

other microbiological risks

What is Escherichia coli

Escherichia coli (E. coli) is a microorganism that has the gastrointestinal tract of individuals and warm-blooded animals among its natural habitats. Some strains can produce a potent toxin and, if they contaminate food, can cause serious disease in humans.

In the majority of subjects, an E. coli toxicity can occur with symptoms such as: abdominal cramps, gastroenteritis, haemorrhagic colitis, fever, and initially watery and later bloody diarrhoea.

In weakened subjects, the consequences could be even more serious. In particular, in pregnant women it can generate enterorrhagia, haemolytic uremic syndrome, thrombocytopenia, microangiopathy and haemolytic anaemia. There may also be a risk of death of the foetus and miscarriage.

escherichia coli bacterium escherichia coli on the dish
food risk pregnancy escherichia coli

How the infection may occur

The infection is transmitted to people through the consumption of contaminated water, the consumption or handling of contaminated food and through contact with infected animals.

In case of very close contact, faecal-oral transmission may also be possible between people.

The incubation period is about 3-4 days but can vary from 2 to 8. In uncomplicated cases, the disease resolves spontaneously and lasts between 2 and 4 days.


In Europe, 6,043 cases were reported in 2013. The proportion of patients hospitalised for cases of E.coli was 41.1%, with a number of deaths equal to 13.

In Italy, between 2009 and 2013 there were on average about 25 cases per year, with 3 deaths related to the entire period.

The average length of hospitalisation ranges from 3 to 7 days, in some cases even reaching 70.

The population group with the highest number of admissions is that of children under 1 year of age, followed by children between 1 and 4 years of age.

cases in Europe in 2013
cases per year on average
between 2009 and 2013 in Italy
Milk and cheese
Fruits and vegetables

What foods to be careful with

Foods that are most often implicated in E. coli infections are::

  • raw milk and products or cheeses derived therefrom;
  • raw or undercooked meat, especially minced meat, in particular beef;
  • fresh fruit and vegetables (especially salads, sprouts, spinach).

Particular attention should be paid to ready-to-eat foods that may be subject to the following kinds of cross-contamination:

  • direct, by contact with other foods that carry the pathogen (raw meat, raw fish, unwashed fruits and vegetables),
  • undirect, by contact with contaminated and inadequately clean utensils or work surfaces.

How to reduce the risk of Escherichia coli infection

Unfortunately, it is not possible to recognise food contaminated by pathogenic micro-organisms:
contaminated food shows no changes in colour, smell, appearance or taste.

Click on the button below to read the rules on foods to avoid and behaviours to be adopted
to reduce the risk of contracting diseases of microbiological origin transmitted by food.