Pesticide-laced beef sickened 92 people in Michigan

May 13, 2003 (CIDRAP News) – At least 92 people got sick after eating ground beef that had been intentionally contaminated with a nicotine-containing pesticide at a Michigan supermarket last January, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The investigation led to charges that a store employee contaminated 200 pounds of beef with Black Leaf 40, a banned pesticide containing 40% nicotine, the CDC reported in the May 9 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The episode began when four families including 18 people became ill immediately after eating ground beef sold at the store Dec 31 (2002) or Jan 1, the CDC said. Their symptoms included burning of the mouth, nausea, vomiting, and dizziness, and one person was treated for atrial fibrillation. The customer complaints led the store to announce a recall of about 1,700 pounds of ground beef. The initial recall notice prompted another 36 people to report illness after eating the beef.

Initial testing by a private laboratory revealed no foodborne pathogens in the meat, but testing for chemical contamination at a second lab detected nicotine at a level of 300 mg/kg. The high level of nicotine triggered suspicion of a pesticide and prompted the US Department of Agriculture and the FBI to join the investigation. After additional tests confirmed nicotine as the contaminant, the store publicized the finding.

The store involved in the case had ground the beef after receiving it from an out-of-state processor. The processing plant and the other stores that bought beef from the plant at the same time received no complaints of illness.

The local health department interviewed 148 people who complained of symptoms after eating the beef and determined that 92 of them met the case definition. Four people sought medical treatment, including a man who was treated for atrial fibrillation and a woman who had rectal bleeding in addition to vomiting. The report says another 16 illness cases are still being investigated to assess whether they were linked with the beef.

A person employed by the store when the meat was contaminated was indicted Feb 12 on a charge of putting Black Leaf 40 into 200 pounds of meat, the report says. The Environmental Protection Agency banned Black Leaf 40 in 1992 because of its toxicity, the article says.

CDC. Nicotine poisoning after ingestion of contaminated ground beef—Michigan, 2003. MMWR 2003;52(18):413-6 [Full text]

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