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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Uptick in E. coli Hamburger Illnesses and Recalls

I have been blogging, some would say flogging, about the reason for the increase, or “uptick” in E. coli cases and recalls tied to hamburger products. Just a few days ago I flogged on the “uptick,” and a few weeks ago flogged about how safe or food supply really is, or not.

Now it is good to see the media weighing in on the topic. Just today there are three articles that should be read to give my readers an idea of the extent of the problem and what might be done to solve it.  I also posted a link below to show just how stupid business and the government can truly be.

Tom Webb of the Pioneer Press:

Rising E. coli cases a danger, a mystery
‘It’s not something we can fully explain,’ says top USDA official

For years, nearly all E. coli cases focused on contaminated hamburger, said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who has specialized representing plaintiffs in cases of food-borne illness since the outbreak at the Jack in the Box hamburger chain in 1993. After some massive hamburger recalls in the late 1990s and early 2000s, better controls to prevent E. coli became required in the meat industry. Then in 2003, as the problems in meat receded, E. coli began turning up in spinach, lettuce and other produce.

Matt McKinney of the Star Tribune:

Questions swirl around recent rise in E. coli cases – Meat recalls have highlighted an uptick in illnesses. Experts offer several theories why.

The headlines keep coming. Last weekend, Cargill voluntarily recalled nearly 1 million pounds of ground beef linked to possible E. coli contamination, its second recall this year. And Topps Meat Co. in September issued the second-largest recall in U.S. history — 21.7 million pounds of ground beef — that put the New Jersey-based meat producer out of business. Those recalls have added to an uptick in E. coli cases since 2005, after more than a decade of declines.

Marti Davis of the Knoxville News:

After huge beef recall, child’s death, health officials warn parents

Ms. Davis also spoke to a former client, a good friend and last summer’s intern at Marler Clark:

Catherine Russe, a Maryville College senior, was 15 when she was sickened by a tainted hamburger served to her at a local hospital where she was being treated for bulimia and anorexia nervosa. She, too, developed HUS, spent more than two weeks in intensive care, and had multiple blood transfusions and lengthy dialysis. She wept when her college professors announced the death of Jaycee Burgin.

"Every time I hear about a child who dies or even gets sick from HUS, I cry. The pain that one experiences during this illness cannot be described, and for a child to have to go through something such as this absolutely breaks my heart," she said.

And if the above is not enough to convince everyone that our food supply has problems, you need to read Stephen Hedges’ piece in the Chicago Tribune:

Beef with E. coli slips through "loophole"

One federal inspector calls it the "E. coli loophole." Another says, "Nobody would buy it if they knew." The officials are referring to the little-discussed fact that the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has deemed it acceptable for meat companies to cook and sell meat on which E. coli, a bacteria that can sicken and even kill humans, is found during processing. The "E. coli loophole" affects millions of pounds of beef each year that test positive for the presence of E. coli O157:H7, a virulent strain of the bacteria.

The contaminated meat is not discarded, it is used, hopefully fully cooked, in products (hamburgers, burritos, pizza, etc) – many consumed by kids in the National School Lunch Program – boy, doesn’t that make sense.  Hamburger anyone?

  • Bill:
    The increased number of cases is directly related to how much E coli O157:H7 is in the food supply. The reason for increased prevalence of E coli is multifaceted. More E coli are on the farm due to E coli becoming more entrenched and developing increasingly numerous niches in feed, water and soil. Weather conditions brought excessive rains to the Midwest fostering contamination, growth and survival. Increasing consolidation of the meat industry with wider distribution through wholesale giants like Wal-Mart. Lack of governmental oversight and failure to follow rules in the meat industry. In addition, one point that is becoming clear and that is over reliance on cooking as a CCP in HACCP. Cross contamination and failure of curing in sausages are just two outcomes of over reliance. Manufactures mistakenly believe that they can rely upon consumers to perform the cooking CCP at home.

  • Pete Snyder

    I don’t think we should blame the manufacturers for the failure of the consumer to cook the hamburger with a digital thermometer. 20 years ago, I showed the USDA and FDA about the bimetalic coil in the bimetalic thermometer. More than 10 years ago I told FSIS that showing the bimetalic thermometer on the warning label was wrong. They refuse to change the label.
    It is USDA that requires the label. They are the ones saying that their controls of the contaminated cow problem are only partly effective and the only sure control is the consumer cooking the burger correctly. The best current information is that no more than 2 percent of the consumers use a thermometer when cooking food and most of them probably use the bimetalic. Yet USDA relies on the label. The regulatory, along with the manufacturers, has a lot of responsibility for bad information and very weak microbiological testing requirements.
    I don’t see much change in the farm or manufacturing in the past few years. What I do see is much better hospital reporting and government analysis and the use of PFGE and I think that is the main reason for the uptick.

  • Robert A. LaBudde

    First, you should be sure that the up-tick is meaningfully different from other years. If the long-term average number of recalls per year is 8, then 19 is outside of the 2.3 to 14 expected. Even if the long-term average is 10, the 19 would beunusual. But is this an enforcement or surveillance artifact or a real event? Assuming the change in incidence is real, then it should be clear that all of these causes are interrelated. Weather affects “shud” contamination of hides and the disease spread within feedlots. Ethanol production drives up grain prices and presses profit margins. So does immigration enforcement. Lower profit margins means increased pressure to cut costs by shaving points. Typically this means line speeds increase, which increases fecal contamination. Ethanol production also means a change in diet, including large amounts of corn gluten meal. This will change microbial ecology. Because of price pressure, farmers will use more antibiotics and deliver animals still on antibiotics to slaughter. This will change microbial ecology to favor E. coli O157:H7.

  • Carl Custer

    From a beef exporter who cc’ed me this and shall remain anonymous:
    “Carl’s ex-employers are going to kill me with all this O157 rubbish.
    Easily solved. Ban feedlots, ban dirty animals being presented for slaughter, use GHP, use trained persons, use GHP, slow chain speeds, use GHP.”
    I suspect GHP is either “Good Hygienic Practices” or “God Help Processors” :^)

  • I follow your blog because of my own interest in
    non-industrialized food. But I wanted to make sure you saw this:
    You probably knew about the E. coli loophole – but I thought this was unbelievable. From the article:
    USDA regularly tests for E. coli in slaughtering plants, but only on meat that packing companies have already deemed free of E. coli, the agency inspectors say. USDA officials say they do not track how much meat is put into “cook only” categories, but interviews with a half-dozen inspectors suggested it is a significant amount.
    “The government keeps putting out that we’ve reduced E. coli by 50 percent and all of that,” said an inspector. “And we haven’t done nothing. We’ve just covered it up.”
    Anyhow, kudos to you. Keep stickin’ it to them. It shouldn’t be so hard for moms like me to avoid feeding kids foodborne pathogens.

  • Ellen Schroth

    Bill – Although the beef industry is not my area of expertise, 2 things occurred to me regarding the uptick.
    First, does the recent number of E. coli O157:H7 cases reflect a true increase from the 1990s when adjusted for population growth and consumption of ground beef?
    And, second, perhaps the PFGE results which are deemed “indistinguishable” are limited by our present ability to distinguish some bacterial changes which have already happened. And that further advances in microbial testing will reveal that the E. coli O157:H7 of the 1990s is not the same bacterium we are dealing with today. So maybe the corrective measures that were implemented in the 1990s did work…but only either for a few years or we are facing a different E.coli subtype that evolved to survive the changes made in the beef industry.

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