March 1, 2000                                                                                                            back

Raw ground beef often tainted with E. coli

By Julie Vorman

WASHINGTON, Mar 01 (Reuters) -- Most raw US meat
processed into ground beef patties may be tainted with tiny
amounts of the illness-causing E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria,
according to a draft study released Tuesday by US Department
of Agriculture (USDA) scientists.

The new estimate adds to the growing evidence that the
sometimes-deadly bug is much more common in live cattle and
carcasses than previously believed by federal regulators.

American consumer groups have stepped up pressure for the
USDA to require the meat industry to adopt testing throughout
the production and distribution chain, a move opposed by firms
who say broad testing will not make food safer.

An estimated 89% of US beef ground into patties contains some
E. coli 0157:H7, although the actual amount may be extremely
small, said Mark Powell, an epidemiologist with the USDA's
Food Safety and Inspection Service.

The bacterium is one of the deadliest forms of foodborne illness,
causing fever, bloody diarrhea and even kidney failure.
Outbreaks of E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria are most often linked to
undercooked hamburgers, and usually affect small children, the
elderly, and others with weak immune systems.

Health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention estimate that 52 Americans die annually from food
with the bacteria, and 62,000 others are sickened.

``The bottom line is that E. coli 0157:H7 is pretty ubiquitous in
ground beef, but at very, very low levels,'' Powell said at a USDA
meeting to present a draft assessment of how risky ground beef
is for consumers. The document, which will be finalized and
made public this spring, is expected to help guide any changes
in the USDA's meat safety standards.

The 89% prevalence rate applies to huge batches of raw meat --
typically 3,000 pounds or more -- mixed together before being
  ground into hamburger, Powell said. Each of the batches may
  contain less than 100 of the microscopic E. coli 0157:H7

  ``It may be a small amount but in the right temperature
  conditions, that rate could rapidly increase,'' Powell said. Fewer
  than 10 of the organisms can cause illness.

  Meat industry officials at the meeting disputed the estimate as
  based on faulty data. They said it did not reflect rigorous testing
  by meat grinders who produce patties for restaurant chains and
  other buyers with high standards.

  But consumer groups point to the data as yet another reason
  why more safety testing is needed all along the production line
  by both the government and meat plants.

  ``Like throwing darts at a dart board, although the government
  hits the target occasionally, it is clearly missing a lot of the
  problem,'' said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety
  for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. ''The (testing)
  program is not systematic.''

  The meat industry said it wants to focus on preventive measures
  to control E. coli 0157:H7, but acknowledged there may be a role
  for more testing in the slaughterhouse.

  The American Meat Institute, a trade group, said a new
  industry-funded study showed a series of steps in beef packing
  plants were effective in killing the bacteria.

  Fewer than 1% of carcasses treated with organic acid, steam or
  hot water rinses had E. coli 0157:H7, compared to 3.5% before
  the treatments, the study said.

  If the USDA required systematic carcass testing for the bacteria,
  slaughter plants could remove contaminated ones before they
  are processed into meat, the industry group said.

  ``It is our hope that this data will encourage USDA to
  reevaluate its ground beef sampling program,'' said Jim Hodges,
  president of the American Meat Institute Foundation. ``A
  carcass testing program for E. coli 0157:H7 is more practical
  and will help ensure that the safest and most wholesome
  product possible enters commerce.''

  The new USDA estimate of contamination in raw meat destined
  for ground beef adds to growing data that E. coli 0157:H7 is not
  as rare as regulators once thought.

  USDA researchers in Nebraska last autumn found the bug in
  50% of feedlot cattle being fattened for slaughter during
  summer months. The rate plunged to 1% in winter months for
  reasons scientists cannot yet explain.

  A new tool to stop contamination was offered by California
  researchers who said a naturally-occurring protein in cow's milk
  can be sprayed on raw meat to starve the bacteria.

  The use of lactoferrin as a protective shield on meat for humans
  mimics how the same protein protects young calves from
  harmful bacteria while their own immune systems develop, said
  Narain Naidu of California State Polytechnic in Pomona.

  ``This is a natural food safety solution,'' said Naidu, who is
  asking for approval to try the treatment at a commercial ground
  beef plant. ``It's consumer- and producer-friendly.''