I spoke with Stephen J. Hedges, Chicago Tribune, last week about the alarming number of beef recalls and human illnesses over the last months.  His full report is here:

Food recalls related to ground beef and E. coli bacteria have reached levels not seen in several years, according to food safety experts, sickening 14 people in six Western states and raising concerns that meat production standards have slipped.

There have been eight recalls related to E. coli bacteria in food so far this year, compared with eight similar recalls for all of 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Seven of the eight E. coli-related recalls this year have involved ground beef, and several included other cuts of beef as well. The recalls have involved more than 6 million pounds of ground beef, according to the agency.

By comparison, the amount of ground beef recalled in all of 2006 was 156,235 pounds.

Recalls involving the E. coli strain O157:H7, a bacterium that lives in cow’s intestines, occur with more regularity in late spring and early summer, food experts say, when temperatures rise and more cattle appear to carry the bacteria, which the animals tolerate.

Contamination of meat occurs during slaughtering when feces and intestinal material may accidentally come into contact with portions of the carcass that are trimmed for retail beef cuts.

Serious illnesses have resulted from E. coli contamination recently. The USDA says that at least 14 people have fallen ill from E. coli in beef this year, but some environmental groups contend the number is as high as 38.

Government, meat industry and food safety officials say that there is no obvious reason for a rise in contamination this year.

“What’s significant right now is the size of the recalls and the number of consumers that have gotten sick because of this,” said William Marler, a Seattle attorney who represents E. coli victims who fell ill this year.