So let’s review: So far this year, in some 20 recalls, ground beef companies have recalled more than 30 million pounds of E. coli O157:H7-contaminated meat.  Hundreds have been sickened, including dozens of children who have undergone kidney dialysis as a result.  This compares with just eight recalls and a total of 156,235 pounds in 2006.  And chances are, this year’s recalls are the tip of the iceberg.  Realistically, it is possible that hundreds more were sickened as a result of these recalls but simply misdiagnosed.  It’s the microbial equivalent of Genghis Khan marching across Asia, except the violence is silent and insidious.  All this after some 5 previous years of marked decline in outbreaks of E. coli.  What’s going on?  What’s changed out there?

There are as many theories as there are authorities, researchers, and meat packers.  Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve talked to a number them, and theories abound.  Here are a few:

Complacency:  After five years of progress with the E. coli problem, one wonders if meat processors have consciously or unconsciously slacked off, relaxing their testing procedures so that they are less likely to detect tainted meat.  That or, possibly, the processors designate their meat that tests positive for E. coli for further processing, rather than discarding or destroying it.  Diverting poisoned meat to another processing line inevitably creates new possibilities for microbes to reach consumers.  If that’s the case, then the recent outbreaks, which led to the bankruptcy of two major meat-processing companies, should serve as a harsh reminder to the food industry that complacency does not pay.

Better Reporting:  When you deal with statistics, there is always some risk that a change in data collection will create false impressions.  For example, police might emphasize thefts from cars, therefore encouraging people to file police reports, which in turn will affect the next statistical report.  One of my associates believes that more doctors are more likely to recognize the symptoms of E. coli poisoning, thereby increasing the chances that an outbreak will be detected, leading to a recall. This may be a factor, but the effects of improved reporting would be gradual. This year’s increase in outbreaks and recalls is far too dramatic and sudden to be explained by a statistical quirk.

Global Warming:  Too dry?  One theory has it that drought through much of the southeast and southwest has led to more fecal dust wafting in the breezes through beef-slaughtering plants, creating new avenues for beef to become tainted.  How’s that make you feel about that ground sirloin?  Too wet?  This theory focuses on excessive rainfall in other regions, which leads to muddy pens that serve as an ideal vehicle for E. coli at meat-processing plants.  Too dry or too wet?  The problem with both of these theories is that the government does such a poor job of tracing the origin of any given lot of beef that it’s next to impossible to determine whether tainted beef came from a plant that was too wet, too dry, or just right.

High oil prices:  They get blamed for everything else, so why not food-poisoning?  The theory is that $3 gas has fueled the growth of ethanol plants.  Those plants tend to be built next to feedlots, because the plants produce a byproduct called distiller’s grains, which serves as an excellent feed for livestock.  Problem is, according to research at Kansas State University, the distillers grain also increases the incidence of E. coli in the hindguts of cattle.  Researchers aren’t sure how that happens, but there is clear evidence of a relationship.  So, to review, high gas prices lead to more ethanol plants which lead to more distiller’s grains, which help breed E. coli in cattle.

Illegal Immigration:  Wait, perhaps not.  The New York Times reported that immigration officials began a crackdown at slaughterhouses across the country last fall.  Some now are hiring men from homeless missions and providing free transportation to many of them.  Hmmm, a influx of unskilled, but US workers, with no experience and high turnover.

The Darwinian explanation:  Another theory has it that previous interventions – from Jack in the Box to Odwalla and ConAgra – have forced the E. coli microbes to adapt, selecting pathogens that are more resistant to detection or intervention.  As one of our sources puts it, Darwin would be proud.  But this seems unlikely because beef comes from a huge and diverse geographic range – literally coast-to-coast and border-to-border.  While the climate and geography varies, the feedlot practices and the manner of slaughtering and processing do not vary much, if at all.

In short, cows have not changed.  Feedlots have not changed.  Slaughterhouses have not changed.  Inspections and government regulations have not changed.  Supermarkets have not changed.  All that has changed is that kids are getting sick again.  And that has to change.

  • Bill

    An email I received:
    Better reporting is at least partially responsible for the increase in O157? Well, that’s not it.
    Although there may be increase awareness, there is no evidence to indicate increased ordering of stool cultures by MDs. If the increase in E. coli O157 was a result of increased testing, we would have seen an increase in all enteric bacterial pathogens. O157 has been reportable in all states for a while, so there is no reason to believe that the same number is being
    identified, but a higher proportion reported to the health dept. Additionally, more and more clinical labs are switching to Shiga toxin testing using non-culture methods. Most of the non-culture methods used by clinical laboratories do not differentiate between O157 and non-O157 STEC. Very few states (maybe only 1) have added submission of the broth resulting from the non-culture method to the state lab for culture, serotyping and subtyping/PFGE. since many of those cases are being identified as ST
    positive, without the actual culture, they are not counted as O157 by state health dept or CDC (they are STEC, O157=unknown). Therefore, the changes in
    laboratory practices may be resulting in undercounting O157 compared to previous years. Besides, increased reporting does not explain the increase in USDA positive samples in routine testing and recalls due to those positive test results. So,as nice as it would be to blame it on increased reporting, that’s not it.

  • Bill

    Another email:
    1. The prevalence in cattle appears to be increasing if you look at the literature (and unpublished data), but in my mind most of this is due to improved laboratory and sampling methods. Still, it has surprised me how easily we recover E. coli O157 in our state (which previously discouraged testing even in research, so we have no baseline). What if it is related to more than testing methods?
    2. Couldn’t some of this increase be from consumers and food handlers developing a false sense of security over time following a perceived reduction in risk (and less media coverage/outreach)? We see this a lot in public health–not a good analogy, but you get something like HIV rates down, and in a few years see them climb back up as the perception of risk goes down. Its a cycle. Of course, with food safety, the producers can break the cycle.

  • So, why the increas in E. coli cases?

    Andrew Martin, well known as the “E. coli guy” in the NYT’s Newsroom, has been spending a bit too much time in slaughterhouses and talking to at least one trial lawyer. One will make you a vegetarian, the other, well,…

  • PVN

    A few years ago some major metropolitan areas proudly announced decreases in death rates due to crime. What actually occurred, however, was that the amount of violent crime had not decreased at all. What changed was the response time of EMTs and the quality of emergency medical care. A crime victim who would have died from his/her injuries was now saved. Bottom line- Death rates may tell you more about the quality of your EMT system than crime rates. But death rates are what everone talks about.
    In this context, I believe their are a number of confounding factors. However, I don’t believe the increase in E. coli cases is a product of simply better reporting. Your list of factors is good food for thought- no pun intended.

  • Rochester Meat Company Recalls Ground Beef Products Due to E. coli O157:H7 Contamination – five illnesses in Wisconsin and one illness in California

    FSIS announced tonight the first E. coli O157:H7 recall of 2008. In 2007 there were at least 21 recalls, totaling over 33,00,000 pounds of meat. Now Rochester Meat Company, a Rochester, Minnesota firm, is voluntarily recalling approximately 188,000 pou…