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E. Coli in Ground Beef Still a Threat, Despite Millions Spent by Meat Processors

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Ground beef recalls due to E. coli contamination have reached near-record levels this year, and E. coli outbreaks have sickened thousands of people across the country.   The sudden spike in E. coli problems has the meat industry scrambling to find ways to fight this sometimes deadly bacterium.   But as E. coli meat recalls and outbreaks become more common, it is becoming plain that this might be easier said than done.

E. coli is a bacterium that occurs naturally in the intestines of most animals, including humans. Most types of the bacteria are harmless, but the E. coli 0157:H7 strain can be particularly dangerous to people. The symptoms of E. coli poisoning usually occur within 3 to 9 days after a victim eats contaminated foods. E. coli 0157:H7 causes a disease called hemorrhagic colitis, which is the sudden onset of stomach pain and severe cramps. This is followed by diarrhea that is watery and bloody. Sometimes there is vomiting, but there is no fever. The illness lasts about a week. While most people will recover completely, E. coli poisoning can be very dangerous for children, the elderly and anyone with a weak immune system. In some cases, E. coli 0157:H7 will cause a disorder called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can be life-threatening. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), E. coli 0157:H7 is responsible for sickening 73,000 people every year, and of those, 60 will die from the disease.

This year, E. coli contamination has hurt meat processors large and small.  The 67-year old Topps Meat Company filed for bankruptcy after it recalled more than 21 million pounds of tainted meat that made hundreds of people ill.  Even giants like Tyson Fresh Meats and Cargill Meat Solutions have seen their reputations sullied by E. coli recalls.  The meat industry says it spends $350 million a year to keep E. coli out of meat, yet the recalls and outbreak keeps coming.

Most of the E. coli meat recalls have involved ground beef, a product uniquely susceptible to E. coli contamination because grinding can mix live E. coli bacteria throughout the meat, and consumers often undercook their hamburgers.   Meat processors use a variety of methods to keep this from happening, including hosing down cattle carcasses with chemicals before processing them, exposing the carcasses to extremely hot steam to kill bacteria, employing steam vacuums to suck away microbes and using elaborate gear to test hundreds of meat samples a day.  But as one disease expert told the New York Times, “If you gave me a million, zillion dollars and said give me a plant that doesn’t have E. coli, I couldn’t do it.”

Because it appears impossible to prevent E. coli from contaminating meat at processing plants, the common sense thing to do would be to keep tainted meat off of store shelves.  But although the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that processors hold meat shipments until tests confirm it to be pathogen free, not all processors do this.  Rather, they put ground beef on the market and recall it later if tests find E. coli contamination.   The meat industry rationalizes this approach by saying that E. coli contamination can be eliminated by cooking ground beef thoroughly.  But clearly, as the number of E. coli poisoning cases illustrates, this is not an adequate response.   Many consumer advocates are now pushing for the USDA to adopt a mandatory “test and hold” policy.   They argue that if E. coli contamination can’t be eliminated at the processing facility, then meat should be kept off of store shelves until it has been tested disease free.

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