Sharp rise in E. Coli Cases This Year Has Many Concerned about Food Safety
Oct 2, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP
The Topps frozen ground beef recall has sparked concerns that E. coli-tainted meat has once again become a major threat to US consumers. E. coli bacteria had been a regular source of frustration for US meat processors until the late 1990s, when the industry instituted reforms to guard against bacterial contamination. But the Topps recall, along with several other recalls and E. coli outbreaks tied to contaminated meat this year have health officials worried that the food borne bacteria is once again on the rise.
Last week, Topps recalled more than 21 million pounds of ground beef after the meat was linked to an outbreak of E. coli in New York State that sickened at least 6 people. A package of Topps frozen beef patties found in the freezer of one victim tested positive for E. coli contamination. The ground beef was then implicated in cases of E. coli poisoning in Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Maine, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Three cases have been directly tied to tainted Topps ground beef, while 24 others are still being investigated.
The Topps Meat Company frozen ground beef recall was the largest meat recall in a decade. The last such massive recall occurred in 1997, when Hudson Foods recalled 25 million pounds of ground beef. Following several meat-related E. coli outbreaks in the 1990s, the industry instituted new safety policies that greatly reduced bacterial contamination in meat products.
But something is happening this year that has both health and meat industry officials concerned. According to the American Meat Institute (AMI), positive tests for E. coli contaminated meat are up significantly over the past three years. The Topps meat recall was one of only several E. coli-related recalls initiated this year. In August, Interstate Meats of Oregon issued a recall for more than 41,000 pounds of ground beef that was linked to an outbreak of E. coli poisoning in the Pacific Northwest. In June, United Food Group also recalled 5 million pounds of meat. That recall was followed by another that involved 40,000 pounds of E. coli-tainted beef products produced by Tyson Fresh Meat, Inc.
While no one can account for the recent spike in E. coli contaminated meat, the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) recent inspection of the Topps Meat Company plant in New Jersey may have yielded some answers in that case. Beef grinding operations there were suspended after the USDA inspectors found that the company had inadequate controls to prevent bacterial contamination. Amazingly, The USDA also said that Topps will not face any fines for the poor conditions at its plant. The company will only have to submit a plan of corrective action before the factory responsible for making so many sick people is up and running again.