Spike in E coli -related beef recalls alarms officials

Oct 9, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – A Wisconsin meat producer recently recalled about 845,000 pounds of frozen ground beef because of possible contamination with Escherichia coli O157:H7, only a day after the Topps Meat Co., a leading producer of frozen hamburgers, announced it was going out of business because it couldn't bear the cost of a recent massive recall.

The two events are the latest in a string of ground beef recalls this year related to E coli contamination. The rising number of incidents worries health and industry officials, because it could represent an erosion of safety gains the industry had achieved since 2002, when a massive E coli outbreak linked to ground beef from ConAgra sickened at least 46 people in 16 states.

According to notices on the US Department of Agriculture (UDSA) Web site, E coli contamination has prompted 11 ground beef recalls so far this year. Six were prompted by routine sampling by the company or the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and were not linked to any illnesses. However, the other five recalls, including ones by Topps and Cargill, were touched off by illness reports.

The number of recalls linked specifically to ground beef averaged about seven per year between 2003 and 2006, according to recall listings archived on the FSIS Web site.

E coli O157:H7 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 (HUS), potentially leading to kidney failure or death, in 2% to 7% of patients.

Minnesota cases spark Cargill recall
On Oct 6, Cargill Meat Solutions Corp, based in Butler, Wis., voluntarily recalled frozen ground beef patties that were produced between Aug 9 and Aug 17 after reports of illnesses in three Minnesota residents, according to a USDA statement. The ground beef was sold nationwide through retail stores, restaurants, and institutions. The product labels bear the establishment number "Est. 924A" inside the USDA inspection mark.

The Minnesota Department of Health said in an Oct 5 statement that four cases of E coli O157:H7 had been linked to eating American Chef's Section Angus Beef Patties, one of the brands implicated in Cargill's beef recall. All the patients were children who ate patties purchased from Sam's Club Stores in August and September. Two of the patients were hospitalized with HUS.

A spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services said an 18-year-old Milwaukee County woman has tested positive for the same E coli strain that infected the Minnesota children, according to an Associated Press report today. The state is awaiting test results on four other residents who have been sickened by E coli infections.

Topps recall is fifth largest
The initial recall of ground beef from Topps Meat, based in Elizabeth, N.J, was announced Sep 25 and was triggered by illness investigations, according to USDA statements. The agency announced an expansion of the recall 4 days later to include a total of 21.7 million pounds of ground beef, representing a whole year of production. (The recalled products have "sell by" or "best if used by" dates that range from Sep 25, 2007, to Sep 25, 2008.)

The Topps recall is the fifth largest involving ground beef and E coli in US history, according to a USDA official.

On Oct 5, Topps, founded in 1940, announced it was going out of business immediately. "This is tragic for all concerned," Anthony D'Urso, Topps' chief operating officer, said in a company statement. "In one week we have gone from the largest US manufacturer of frozen hamburgers to a company that cannot overcome the economic reality of a recall this large."

The number of illnesses linked to contaminated beef from Topps has grown slowly but steadily since the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC's) last update. As of Oct 5, the CDC said it had identified 32 cases involving E coli O157:H7 strains that match strains found in Topps ground beef patties. The outbreak has sickened people in eight states, mostly in the Northeast.

Among 23 patients for whom hospitalization status is known, 15 (65%) were hospitalized and one developed HUS.

State and federal laboratories that tested opened and unopened packages of Topps ground beef patties recovered from patients' homes found E coli O157:H7 isolates with several different DNA fingerprint patterns, the CDC said.

USDA answers charge of delay in Topps recall
On Oct 4, the Chicago Tribune reported that the USDA waited 18 days before it announced the Topps recall. The Tribune based its story on an e-mail it obtained from an agency official to an attorney for one of the patients who reportedly became ill after eating Topps ground beef.

Tests confirmed the E coli O157:H7 stain in Topps ground beef on Sep 7, but the USDA not did not announce the Topps recall until Sep 25, the Tribune reported.

The USDA hosted a news teleconference the same day to defend its actions and address safety concerns regarding the nation's ground beef supply.

David Goldman, assistant administrator in the USDA's Office of Public Health Science, told reporters that the agency first became aware of the E coli outbreak on Aug 31, when it received an illness report from a Florida patient's family. He said USDA field officers immediately obtained leftover product from an opened package in the family's freezer and sent it to a lab in Athens, Ga., for testing.

The agency received a positive E coli O157 test result on Sep 7 and initiated pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) testing to determine the DNA fingerprint of the strain, which Goldman said took 7 days, because the test had to be run several times.

Meanwhile, the regulatory lab in Athens received samples to test from an intact box of product sent by Topps, he said, adding that 13 tests were negative for E coli.

On Sep 14, the USDA received the PFGE test results, and the CDC's Pulse Net confirmed that the strain and a sample from the Florida patient had matching DNA fingerprints.

Goldman said that after several meetings to review the findings, the UDSA held off on advising Topps to recall its ground beef, because the agency could not say for certain that the contamination occurred at the processing plant. The reason for doubt was that the package in the patient's freezer had been opened.

About a week later the USDA learned of two more E coli illnesses in New York that had PFGE patterns that matched those found in Topps products, though they did not match the pattern seen in the Florida case, he said.

"So at this point we had three different PFGE patterns related to three different products from the same establishment causing three different illnesses," Goldman told reporters.

On Sep 24, New York officials told the USDA they had isolated E coli O157:H7 from an unopened box of Topps hamburgers found in a supermarket, and the next morning the USDA advised the company to issue a recall, he said.

Though the situation was complex and the USDA followed established protocols, Goldman said, the agency was concerned about the time that elapsed between the first PFGE notification and the recall. "We've determined, in fact, that there is room for improvement, and we intend to act on the findings of our review immediately," he said.

Daniel Englejohn, deputy assistant administrator of the FSIS, told reporters that the USDA will establish a stronger threshold for issuing a recall sooner when evidence of illness linked to an FSIS-inspected product is taken from a consumer's home.

Officials look for cause of spike
Richard Raymond, FSIS undersecretary for food safety, said at the teleconference that the agency noticed greater numbers of positive samples for E coli O157:H7 in May and June, along with a related increase in recalls. He added that the FSIS took a number of steps in June to explore why E coli findings have been increasing. For example, Raymond said the FSIS doubled its E coli sampling in July. Though the agency didn't find any positives in July, increased testing continues, he said.

"We had 3 really good years where the amount of product that we sampled was extremely low as far as coming back positive for E coli," he said. "Something happened this summer. It's different. It was a high prevalence season, but we saw sample numbers go up, we saw the recall numbers go up, we saw human illnesses attributed to ground beef go up."

The agency will also examine the efficiency and effectiveness of outbreak investigations related to recalls, he said. The USDA is planning a 2-day seminar, incorporating the input of public health officials at federal, state, and local levels, to discuss ways it can improve the process.

One area that officials will cover in the Topps investigation is whether FSIS investigators have the tools, training, data, and oversight to do their jobs, Raymond said.

Investigators have found that Topps' E coli controls were inadequate, and on Sep 26 they suspended raw ground processes at the plant, he said.

Englejohn said the USDA will do a thorough assessment of whether processors have followed through on the food safety systems they promised to adopt—and whether the systems are effective. He said evidence suggests that not all ground beef processors have uniformly applied the USDA policies and that some of the safety programs aren't effective.

Another problem, he said, is that the USDA needs to better clarify what the minimum expectations are for the industry.

The National Cattleman's Beef Association recently had some harsh words for processors that don't adhere to established food safety systems. James O. Reagan, chairman of the association's Beef Industry Food Safety Council, said in the statement, "It is unacceptable that even one company was not following commonly accepted safety interventions in place for many years."

Yesterday, Meatingplace.com, a beef industry Web site, published the results of an online survey of its readers on what interventions are needed to contain E coli O157:H7. Sixty three percent advocated a test-and-hold system whereby processors hold ground beef shipments until sample test results are confirmed as negative for E coli; 37% opted for diligent disinfection, irradiation, and consumer education.

When asked about mandatory traceability for meat products, 48% supported the idea and 52% opposed it. About 60% doubted that it is possible to trace the source of E coli contamination in ground beef to the original supplier.

See also:

FSIS press release on Cargill recall

Oct 5 CDC E coli update

Oct 4 USDA teleconference transcript

Oct 1 CIDRAP News report "Ground beef recall expands as more E coli illnesses probed"

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