The Topps ground beef E. coli outbreak originated with Canadian beef, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced recently. The revelation is sure to raise more questions about meat inspection in the US, as American meat processors are not required by the USDA to test certain types of meat supplied by foreign companies.
More than 21 million pounds of Topps ground beef was recalled in late September after it was linked to an E. coli outbreak that sickened people throughout the US and Canada. At least 40 people in the US became sick from the contaminated Topps ground beef, and the fallout from the E. coli outbreak and subsequent Topps ground beef recall caused the 67-year old meat processing company to go out business.
According to the USDA, tests of beef trim from Ranchers Beef, Ltd. of Balzac, Alberta, Canada showed that it was infected with the same strain of E. coli bacteria involved in the Topps outbreak. Ranchers Beef is now defunct, but it supplied beef trim to Topps Meat Company before going out of business on August 15. Ranchers Beef’s tainted meat has also been tied to 45 cases of E. coli poisoning in Canada.
E. coli is responsible for sickening 73,000 people
According to the Centers for Disease Control, E. coli is responsible for sickening 73,000 people every year, and of those, 60 will die from the disease. Recalls of E. coli tainted meat have doubled this year, and outbreaks of the food borne illness are on the rise as well. E coli poisoning usually occurs within 3 to 9 days after a victim eats contaminated foods. The symptoms of E. coli include stomach pain and severe cramps. This is followed by diarrhea that is watery and bloody. While most people will recover completely in about a week, E. coli poisoning can be very dangerous for children, the elderly and anyone with a weak immune system.
The revelation that the Topps ground beef E. coli outbreak originated with a Canadian supplier only serves to highlight the inadequate safety measures at the meat processor’s Elizabeth, New Jersey plant in the months before the Topps ground beef recall. Federal inspectors have revealed that in the months prior to the recall, Topps was ignoring many standard safety procedures at its plant. For example, Topps got a substantial amount of meat from foreign suppliers. But shockingly, federal guidelines don’t require some types of imported meat to be tested for bacteria. Topps had also quit testing its meat for bacterial contamination once a month, and was only doing so three times per year. What’s more, Topps did not require its domestic beef suppliers to test their meat, and the company often mixed tested and untested meat together.
The most disturbing aspect of this whole saga is that these substandard practices at the Topps Meat Company were occurring right under the noses of USDA meat inspectors. According to the agency, inspectors visited the plant on a daily basis and spent between one and two hours there each day. Yet, the company was never cited over safety issues. The USDA’s lack of action at the Topps ground beef plant definitely made it more likely that E. coli outbreak related to Topps ground beef would occur sooner or later.