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E. Coli Testing Protocols Lacking

Jun 23, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Whole cuts of beef that may be contaminated by Escherichia coli—E. coli—are not only legal to market, but the government does not test them for the bacteria.

In the US, E. coli is the leading cause of food-borne illness and about 73,000 people are infected and 61 people die from E. coli annually; last year, over 22 million pounds of beef and vegetables were recalled due to E. coli outbreaks.  The problem is difficult to police because the food-surveillance system is outdated, under-funded, and overwhelmed by the emergence of mega-farms, -distribution centers, and -transporters.  Scientists have expressed concern that infections from antibiotic resistant E. coli bacteria are now spreading and several countries are reporting cases.  Worse, emerging data confirms the negative health effects of E. coli can remain for months and years; can have long-term, lasting effects; and can appear months or years after the original illness.

In light of a record number of recalls, illnesses, and deaths linked to E. coli, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is considering new regulations for the sale of steaks and other beef cuts.  Richard Raymond, the USDA's undersecretary for food safety, said he was shocked when he found out it was legal to sell E. coli-contaminated beef and that he is seeking a "practical solution" to "what I feel to be a gap" in USDA regulations.  The USDA has not proposed any specific measures.

Escherichia coli is a relatively common bacteria found in the human digestive tract and, while normally harmless, some strains—such as those linked to food poisoning—are serious and can cause fatal blood poisoning, cystitis, and deadly septicemia.  Because many infected with the bacteria experience less severe symptoms, many cases are never reported.

Consider this, 14 people were sickened from E.coli-tainted meat near Omaha this spring; however, the bacteria was not found in undercooked hamburger—as is often the case—but in roast beef. The most virulent form of E. coli is carried in cattle manure and can contaminate beef during processing, but whole cuts are considered less risky because bacteria are on the outside and killed quickly when cooked.  But tainted and inappropriately handled whole beef cuts can contaminate kitchen surfaces and other foods, which is what likely occurred at a Sizzler restaurant in 2000 in which fresh watermelon is believed to have been contaminated by raw sirloin tips.  In Omaha, investigators believe E. coli may have moved from outside of the roast when the cook inserted garlic cloves into the meat; however it’s possible bacteria were in the sink and the beef became contaminated when the cook rinsed it.

Donna Rosenbaum, executive director of Safe Tables Our Priority, a consumer advocacy group, said it's "way past time" for the USDA to take steps to prevent the sale of contaminated beef cuts.  It takes such a small amount of this to make a person sick," she said.

The nation's most current food poisoning outbreaks involves a wide-spread and nationwide fresh Salmonella-tainted tomato outbreak and a possible ground beef contamination that is now emerging in Ohio and Michigan that may be linked to a Dutch’s Meat recall earlier this month.

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