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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

E. coli Outbreak Linked to Vermont Slaughterhouse

Contaminated ground beef that sickened at least 10 people in Vermont has been traced to the Vermont Livestock, Slaughter and Processing Co. in Ferrisburgh, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Thursday. The USDA has recalled more than a ton of ground beef processed at the plant and distributed to restaurants, food services and institutions in Vermont and Plattsburgh, N.Y., the USDA said.

The 2,758 pounds of ground beef subject to the recall was shipped in 5-pound packages labeled VT BURGER CO GROUND BEEF. They carry the number EST 9558 inside the USDA mark of inspection and a lot code of 090508A, 090808A, 091208A, 091908A or 092208A. The products were shipped two packages per box and were produced on Sept. 5, 8, 12, 19 and 22. The problem was discovered through a joint investigation with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the state Health Department.

Is there a link to this outbreak in Canada?  Vermont is certainly not that far away.

Up to 93 possible E. coli cases in Ontario linked to Harvey’s as outbreak spreads

As I said in a press release today:

"In the last year and a half, the American meat industry has been in a spiral of recalls," said food safety advocate and attorney William Marler. "More than 40 million pounds of meat tainted with E. coli O157:H7 has been publicly recalled, up by a factor of two hundred from the 2006 amount of 181,900 pounds. This is a very dangerous and completely unacceptable level of contaminated beef making its way to consumers."

In more than thirty recalls ranging from a few hundred to millions of pounds, the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) has deemed E. coli contaminated meat a class one health hazard to consumers. (A class I recall involves a health hazard situation in which there is a reasonable probability that eating the food will cause health problems or death.)

"There are many theories as to why there has been such an unprecedented jump in E. coli," said Marler. "It could be regulatory complacency, better reporting, or immigration sweeps that have left slaughterhouses empty of skilled workers. Global warming may be spreading fecal dust and/or high oil prices may have led to an E. coli-producing diet for cattle. The microbe itself may even be evolving to elude capture. These ideas need investigation and research, so that real change can begin."

  • I doubt a link to the Canadian outbreak. There is no indication that the Vermont beef was shipped cross-border. North Bay, Ontario is north of Toronto, and some 440 miles from Burlington, VT (according to MapQuest).
    Harvey’s is a large Canadian burger franchise chain. It’s highly unlikely that they would be sourcing ground beef from a small Vermont processor.
    If there’s any US tie-in on the Harvey’s outbreak, my bet would be on the Aunt Mid’s lettuce, which we know was shipped into Ontario.

  • Consumers concerned about food prices, food safety
    Dairy Herd staff | Friday, October 17, 2008
    The Center for Food Integrity released results from its latest consumer survey this week. More than 2,000 consumers were asked to rate their level of concern on a variety of issues — food safety, humane treatment of animals, immigration reform, sustainability and economics.
    The top three items that respondents indicated they were “very concerned” about were rising food cost, rising energy cost and the state of the U.S. economy. The survey showed 60 percent of respondents are more concerned about food prices today than they were a year ago.
    Disturbingly, the survey also indicates that consumer trust in food safety is decreasing.
    “It is interesting to note that consumers are more concerned about food safety than the war in Iraq,” says Charlie Arnot, chief executive officer for the Center for Food Integrity.
    http://www.dairyherd.com/directories.asp?pgID=675&ed_id=7747

  • matt

    “The USDA has recalled more than a ton of ground beef processed at the plant and distributed to restaurants, food services and institutions in Vermont and Plattsburgh, N.Y., the USDA said.”
    Does the USDA have the power to force a recall?

  • Does the USDA have the power to force a recall?
    Unfortunately, no. As I understand it, USDA’s only recourse is to withdraw its inspectors from a facility, effectively shutting it down.

  • Bill

    Dear Bill,
    I read your piece titled: “Vermont recall part of dangerous trend”. As you will read below, we have been taking a look at the “trend” and have come up with some “theories” of our own.
    We were reviewing the percentage of positive samples vs. tested samples by FSIS and published on their website. When we plotted the data we were surprised to see what looks like a clear upward trend. Since we are both discussing trends, I thought I’d share the following with you.
    Enjoy,
    Russell
    The following data were provided by USDA FSIS. It represents the percentage of samples that tested positive for e.coli O157:H7 vs. the total number of samples tested.
    [Reference: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/science/2005_Ecoli_Positive_Results/index.asp ]
    2005 0.17%
    2006 0.19%
    2007 0.24%
    2008 0.39%
    The data from 2005 through 2008 show a pattern that might be significant. Unfortunately there are only 4 data points so there is a large uncertainty to the following analysis. However, it will be very interesting to see the data for 2009 to perhaps confirm the analysis.
    I have not used the data from 2001 through 2004 because they are suspect. They say that the samples taken are greater than those published. Thus, without any other knowledge, one cannot use those data.
    I have generated a 3rd. degree polynomial curve fit for the four “good” data points and generated the following equation:
    2005 = Year 1
    2006 = Year 2
    2007 = Year 3
    2008 = Year 4
    2009 = Year 5
    etc.
    0.232 – 0.091 * Year + 0.033 * Year^2 = Percent Positives
    For example, let’s take 2007 and work it through (remember, 2007 = Year 3):
    0.232 – 0.091 * 3 + 0.033 * 3^2 = Percent Positives
    0.232 – 0.273 + 0.297 = Percent Positives
    0.256 = Percent Positives [This correlates to the actual number of 0.24% for 2007]
    By using this formula you can interpolate or extrapolate the data. Extrapolation has a high degree of uncertainty, however, it can be used as a tool with appropriate caution.
    If you work this through in 2011 you will be above 1%; and by 2020, you will be above 7%.
    A good test for this formula will be 2009. The formula predicts that 2009 will yield 0.60%.
    Points:
    1) Unlike other pathogens that have been around for a while, O157:H7 is relatively new. Its abundance in the environment is continuing to spread. Often this type of spread is more exponential than linear. Factors may include birds and other animals continuing to pick up the pathogen and distributing it, creating an expanding cycle. [Versus older known pathogens, such as Salmonella, that have already reached a steady state in the environment.]
    2) The prevailing opinion over the last few years is to “point the finger” at the food processors, distributors, producers, farmers, consumers, etc.; and that if we could only correct their behavior of all of these entities through proper sanitation procedures (HACCP etc.), that the e.coli problem could be brought under control. This has evolved in the “farm to fork” mentality.
    3) We have a different hypothesis: All of the above efforts are laudable, and perhaps can control the rate of increase. But, without a “kill step”, an upward trend in the food consumed will continue.
    4) Because the data from 2001 through 2004 are suspect, they do not support (or refute) the idea that existing approaches to e.coli control are effective. However, what we do know is that even if the data from 2001 through 2004 are real, and do support the existing approaches, they are no longer effective in preventing an upward trend of “positives”.
    5) It is logical to assume that the number of illnesses will continue to rise as the prevalence of e.coli O157:H7 increase. So, in 2011 we could have three times as many illnesses as we have in 2008 or, perhaps, 21 times the number in 2020?
    6) All of the above, at this point, is an hypothesis. If the trend continues through 2009 it moves more to a “theory”. It has enough significance to raise a yellow, if not red flag, because the consequences could be catastrophic.