Ground Beef Recall Highlights Persistent Food-Safety Problems

Liz and Celeste are on vacation, so we're re-posting some content from our old site.

By Liz Borkowski, originally posted 11/3/09

New York-based Fairbank Farms is recalling more than 500,000 pounds of ground beef products that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. Gardiner Harris reports in the New York Times that two people - one from New Hampshire and one from New York - have died after eating the ground beef suspected of contamination, and more than two dozen people have fallen ill. [Note: This is a re-post from 2009, so don't go running to look for this beef in your fridge. Up-to-date info on recalls can be found here.]

The products in question bear a stamp reading "EST 492" and were distributed to retailers (including Trader Joe's and Giant) in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia. A Fairbanks Farms spokesperson told the Times that the products had September sell-by dates and should no longer be on grocery shelves; however, some customers may still have these products in their freezers. The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service has posted a list of the products subject to recall, and notes that one product - cases of 10-pound "Fairbank Farms Fresh Ground Beef Chubs" - was sold to retailers for further processing and will likely not bear the package dates and sell-by dates being publicized.

Harris's article and the FSIS press release about the recall highlight two food-safety issues that bear emphasizing.

In an NYT article last month, Michael Moss explained why ground beef is so often the culprit in E. coli outbreaks:

Ground beef is usually not simply a chunk of meat run through a grinder. Instead, records and interviews show, a single portion of hamburger meat is often an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and even from different slaughterhouses. These cuts of meat are particularly vulnerable to E. coli contamination, food experts and officials say. Despite this, there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for the pathogen.

The low-grade cuts of meat often used in ground-beef products come from areas of the cow that are more likely to have contact with feces, which research has found to carry E. coli. Since the meat is coming from multiple different suppliers, it would make sense for each of those suppliers to test their meat for contamination, and thus head off potential contamination of mixed batches. In tracing the story of a Cargill hamburger patty that caused severe illness and lasting paralysis in 22-year-old Stephanie Smith, Moss found that this kind of testing often doesn't happen:

Yet Cargill, like most meat companies, relies on its suppliers to check for the bacteria and does its own testing only after the ingredients are ground together. The United States Department of Agriculture, which allows grinders to devise their own safety plans, has encouraged them to test ingredients first as a way of increasing the chance of finding contamination.

Unwritten agreements between some companies appear to stand in the way of ingredient testing. Many big slaughterhouses will sell only to grinders who agree not to test their shipments for E. coli, according to officials at two large grinding companies. Slaughterhouses fear that one grinder's discovery of E. coli will set off a recall of ingredients they sold to others.

Over the summer, FSIS announced that it would begin testing the trimmings used in ground beef; previously, FSIS inspectors had tested most of the meat used in ground beef but not trimmings. On average, individual plants can expect to have these trimmings tested two or three times a year. Whether such infrequent inspections will be enough to spur improvements in meat suppliers' processes remains to be seen, but the agency appears to intend this as a means to determine whether a systemic problem exists with contamination in these trimmings. If the inspections do turn up widespread and consistent contamination, then the agency will have to decide what's necessary to solve the problem.

While this particular perfect storm of contamination risks may be unique to ground beef, there's another challenge facing all food-borne outbreak investigations: /2009/04/21/thanks-minnesota/">The ability to detect and trace outbreaks depends on state health departments, which are often under-resourced. The FSIS press release about this particular ground beef recall notes that the agency "is continuing to work with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the Connecticut Department of Public Health, other state health and agriculture departments and the CDC on the investigation." It's great that the federal government seems to be serious about tackling food-safety problems, but it needs strong partners at the state level.

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Ground beef, organic, supermarket and/or undercooked hamburgers have been implicated in deadly E.coli outbreaks. trust me on this one, I'm recently retired from a county health department, division of infectious diseases. "Organic" foods, including non-pasteurized apples pressed into cider was the causative factor in a major outbreak of deadly E. coli because the "organic" apples were contaminated with infected cow manure.

Undercooked chopped beef whether consumed in a restaurant or prepared at home has caused serious illness including death due to major multiple organ failure due to septicemic shock.

Other fresh produce, even from "organic" farms has caused major E. coli food-borne illnesses because of the use of manure used by such farms...or the watering of the crops with water contaminated with infected cow manure.

I assume that all ground beef products are infected and make certain that ground beef is well-cooked. If a need a rare beef "fix", I sear a roast or a thick steak before I consume or serve the rare beef to burn off any surface contaminants.

A small investment to purchase a digital meat thermometer will ensure that all meats that you serve and ingest are safe.