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Myth to Fact — 11 minutes

Hamburger meat contaminated with E. coli bacteria is the most common cause of food poisoning

It’s a myth!

According to Statistics Canada[1], 2 out of 3 food poisoning cases are not caused by bacteria, but by a common and very infectious group of viruses known as noroviruses, which cause gastroenteritis. When it comes to foodborne norovirus outbreaks, most occur when food is contaminated by infected handlers, particularly if they have not properly washed their hands.

That said, though food poisoning affects nearly one in eight (4 million) Canadians each year, in 60% of cases we do not know the origin. For identified food poisoning, after norovirus the most common causes are, in order:

  • the bacterium Clostridium (C. perfringens), especially present in dairy products (11% of cases)
  • the bacterium Campylobacter (C. jenuni), often present in contaminated meat (8% of cases)
  • salmonella, often present in poultry (5% of case).

E. coli is so much further down the list that it is not ranked at all — less than 500 Canadians each year are infected by the dangerous O157:H7 strand colloquially known as “hamburger disease.”[2] As the name suggests, many cases of the infection, which can cause very severe renal damage and even death, come from poorly cooked ground beef patties. One of the serious complications of hamburger disease is Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS)[3]. Children and the elderly are the main victims, and HUS is the leading cause of kidney failure in children.

It's not just beef that's to blame, though: unpasteurized dairy products, cold meats, hot dogs, chicken and lamb, and raw fruits and vegetables can also be contaminated. Unsurprisingly, cases of E. coli O157: H7 poisoning increase during hot weather, and cooking precautions[4] are paramount.