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Stolen E. Coli Contaminated Ground Beef Prompts USDA Warning

Dec 28, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP

E. coli tainted beef that was recently stolen could become a public health threat.  U.S. regulators have issued a public health alert for about 14,800 pounds—671 kilos—of missing ground beef products that may be contaminated with the potentially deadly E. coli bacteria, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said on Thursday.  The alert came after a refrigerated trailer containing ground beef was reported stolen by Texas American Food Service Corporation.  A portion of the beef was set aside because the company thought it may have been tainted with E. coli.  The firm, based in Fort Worth, Texas, does business as American Fresh Foods, a privately held meat producer.  American Fresh Foods is working with the USDA and local and state police to recover the stolen product and truck and warned consumers not to buy its ground beef from questionable vendors.  The USDA's public health alert covers ground beef products packaged for consumer use carrying the establishment number "EST. 13116" on the package labels.  Bulk products carry labels bearing the establishment number "EST. 13116."  The ground beef was produced on December 19th.  

E. coli 0157:H7—Escherichia coli 0157:H7—is one of hundreds of E. coli strains, the vast majority of which are harmless.  Strain 0157:H7 is quite virulent and produces a powerful toxin that can cause severe illness and even death and is the leading cause of food and waterborne illness in the United States.  According to Center of Disease Control (CDC) estimates, there are over 70,000 cases of infection and 61 deaths occurring in the U.S. annually with most illness linked to undercooked or contaminated meat.  Although E. coli is routinely found on cattle farms and in the intestines of healthy livestock, outbreaks only occur when meat becomes tainted during slaughter, the bacteria contaminates the grounding process, and tainted meat is released and consumed by the public.  Symptoms of E. coli 0157:H7 illness include potentially severe stomach cramps, diarrhea and dehydration.  Children, the elderly and people with poor immune systems are most vulnerable.

There have been over 52 meat recalls this year alone.  Ten of this year's recalls—and most of these were small and with no associated illnesses—were the result of routine U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) testing.  Each year, the USDA tests thousands of meat and poultry products for bacteria, including E. coli 0157:H7.  Last year, the USDA tested 12,000 samples of ground beef for E. coli O157:H7.  Of the 12,000 samples tested, 20 tests were returned back as positive and eight recalls were mandated.  Five recalls were instituted following routine USDA tests.  The five recalls involved nearly 20,000 pounds of beef and no reported illnesses.  This year’s recalls resulting from routine USDA tests involved 43,000 pounds of ground beef, chicken, turkey, and ham products with the largest meat recall being that of over 21 million pounds of frozen hamburgers from Topps Meat.  Contamination was discovered as a result of consumer illness reports.  This type of recall typically happens weeks after meat has been shipped due to the time it takes for meat to be eaten and for a contamination link to be made to the meat.


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