E coli in Topps beef traced to Canadian firm

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Oct 29, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – The source of Escherichia coli O157:H7 that recently spurred a massive recall of ground beef by Topps Meat Co. probably was contaminated beef trim from a Canadian firm, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced.

DNA fingerprinting has linked the strain of E coli O157:H7 found in trim from the Canadian company to an E coli outbreak involving 40 illnesses in eight US states and 45 illnesses and one death in five Canadian provinces, according to an Oct 26 press release from the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). E coli in samples from the Canadian company also matched the strain that health officials in New York found in intact and opened packages of Topps ground beef from the homes of patients.

The company that supplied Topps, based in Elizabeth, N.J., with the contaminated beef was Ranchers Beef, Ltd., based near Calgary, Alta. The firm ceased operations on Aug 15, but the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) obtained and tested some of the company's product that had been in storage and then notified US officials of its E coli O157:H7 findings.

"We appreciate the assistance from our food safety partners in Canada. This piece of information helped us to determine a likely source of contaminated product, which led to the Sep 29 Topps Meat Company expanded recall," Richard Raymond, USDA under secretary for food safety, said in the press release.

A notice on the Ranchers Beef Web site said the company's plant was for sale. On Sep 25, Topps said it was going out of business immediately because it could not handle the economic burden of recalling 21.7 million pounds of ground beef.

The FSIS said it had delisted Ranchers Beef on Oct 20, meaning none of the company's products have been eligible for import since that date. The agency announced that it was placing a hold on Ranchers beef, along other products made from Ranchers beef, until the USDA and CFIA complete their investigation.

The Topps recall was the largest of several recalls related to E coli in ground beef this year. On Oct 23 the FSIS introduced a number of regulatory measures designed to reduce E coli contamination in ground beef.

Federal investigators at the Topps plant found that the company had reduced its microbial testing on finished ground beef from once a month to three times a year, according to an Oct 23 report in the New York Times. The company also had failed to require adequate testing on beef from its domestic suppliers, and, like other producers, had increased its purchases of meat from overseas, where testing is not always required, the Times report said.

On the three days when the company was known to have produced contaminated batches of beef, it was grinding both domestic and foreign trimmings, the Times reported.

Among the new federal safety measures for ground beef, the USDA is requiring more testing of domestic and imported ground beef components and will notify countries that export beef to the United States about new policies and programs to control the pathogen.

In related developments, New Jersey officials announced recently that its inspectors were able to buy boxes of the recalled Topps beef at a retail store 4 weeks after the product was recalled, according to an Oct 25 report from the Associated Press.

See also:

Oct 26 FSIS press release
http://www.fsis.usda.gov/News_&_Events/NR_102607_01/index.asp

Oct 9 CIDRAP News story "Spike in E coli–related beef recalls alarms officials"

Oct 23 CIDRAP News story "USDA announces plans to reduce E coli contamination in ground beef"

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