Six-state E coli outbreak blamed on ground beef

Jun 11, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – A recent ground beef recall has been expanded to 5.7 million pounds following the identification of 14 Escherichia coli O157:H7 cases in six states, according the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The products, which include fresh and frozen ground beef packaged under a variety of store brands and other major labels, are no longer on store shelves, but they may still be in consumers' freezers, the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) said in a Jun 9 statement.

"It is important that consumers look for and return these products if they find them," the USDA said.

Of the 14 patients whose E coli infections have been linked to the contaminated beef, 6 are from Arizona, 3 are from California, 2 from Colorado, and 1 each from Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming, according to the FSIS. All the patients have recovered.

The beef subject to recall was produced by United Food Group, LLC, based in Vernon, Calif. The company first recalled 75,000 pounds of ground beef on Jun 3 because of sampling done by California and Colorado health departments when investigating illnesses. The firm expanded the recall 3 days later to 370,000 pounds, incorporating meat produced on an earlier date.

For the first two recalls, the products involved only ground beef sold in prepackaged chubs or casings. The expansion to 5.7 million pounds was spurred by an E coli finding in fresh ground beef provided by a patient in Arizona, the USDA said.

The fresh and frozen ground beef was processed between Apr 6 and Apr 20 and distributed to retail stores in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. The products bear the establishment number "EST. 1241" inside the USDA inspection mark or elsewhere on the package. The products have use-by/sell-by dates between Apr 15 and May 7 and freeze-by dates between Apr 23 and May 7. The frozen ground beef patty products have sell-by dates between Aug 6, 2007, and Jan 20, 2008.

Todd Waldman, United Food Group's senior vice president, said in a Jun 9 press release that all of the illnesses have been linked so far to the company's fresh ground beef purchased during a short time frame, rather than its frozen products.

"We have been unable to pinpoint the exact date and time of production because the code dating information on the packaging was no longer available from the consumer," Waldman said. "As a precautionary measure, we have chosen to voluntarily recall additional fresh and frozen ground beef products."

Recent major outbreaks of E coli O157:H7 have been linked with fresh produce, but overall the pathogen has more commonly been found in ground beef. The strain produces a toxin that causes diarrhea—often bloody—and abdominal cramps, but typically no fever. The illness usually resolves in 5 to 10 days, but it can cause hemolytic uremic syndrome, potentially leading to kidney failure or death, in 2% to 7% of patients.

Following a massive ground beef recall by a Greeley, Colo., plant in 2002, the USDA required meatpacking plants to review their safety systems and take specific steps to reduce E coli contamination. The agency credited that step for a subsequent decline in contamination found by USDA sampling and a decline in ground beef recalls.

However, US meat producers have issued eight recalls related to E coli contamination so far this year, which is more than they issued during all of 2006, according to an article published today by Meatingplace.com, a beef industry Web site. The number of recalls is stirring some concern that the beef industry's safety gains are starting to taper off.

"Suffice it to say that we are well aware there has been an increase in recalls this year and are keeping a close watch on the situation," FSIS spokesman Steve Cohen told Meatingplace.

Despite the increase in recalls this year, the proportion of meat samples with E coli so far this year is running below 2006 levels: 0.14% compared to 0.17%, Cohen reported. He said about 5,000 samples have been tested so far this year.

Cohen said there doesn't seem to be a pattern to the recent E coli-related recalls of beef products. "We perform tracebacks to determine if there are links among clusters of recalls, and [for the most recent ones], we haven't found any," he told Meatingplace. "At this point, it's safe to say each was prompted by very different circumstances."

The spike in recalls could also be the result of increased public health vigilance and better partnerships between the federal agencies that are involved with food safety issues, Cohen said.

See also:

Jun 9 USDA statement

Jun 9 United Food Group press release

Mar 2, 2005, CIDRAP News story "E coli in in ground beef dropped in 2004, USDA says"

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