Today, the National Beef Packing Co. recalled around 50,000 pounds of ground beef products feared to be contaminated with E. coli. This is the second time this summer that the Kansas-City-based company has had to recall its beef product. In June, over 22,000 pounds of beef were recalled for similar E. coli concerns.
E. coli contamination remains a prevalent issue and there must be more preventative measures to ensure contaminated products don’t make it to the market. Yet on a macro level, our ground beef is much safer then it was decades ago. Currently, extremely isolated incidences of E. coli infestation are not reason to fear buying ground beef.
E. coli lives in the lower intestines of humans and animals, and it a part of a healthy digestive tract. Most strains of E. coli are not harmful. However, some are pathogenic and can have fatal affects when consumed. The Shiga-toxin-producing E. coli is the strain associated with foodborne outbreaks. According the USDA, the type found in a test sample of the recalled 50,000 pounds of beef is a "potentially deadly bacterium that can cause bloody diarrhea, dehydration, and in the most severe cases, kidney failure. The very young, seniors and persons with weak immune systems are the most susceptible to foodborne illness."
Many consumers are worried that consuming ground beef products carries the risk of contracting the deadly strain of E. coli. However, according the USDA, the incidence of E. coli in beef is less than 1%. Obviously, we want the incidence to be 0%, but on a national level, that is not a high number. Around 76,000 people a year are infected, 60 of which die. This is not cause for panic. Even if you are worried about ingesting a potentially harmful strain, there are preventative measures you can take while consuming the beef. The CDC suggests that cooking beef thoroughly at high temperatures, and making sure to not re-use the same plate that had raw meat on it before washing will help to ensure you don't contract any pathogens. While incidence levels are extremely low and intensified efforts to test samples of ground beef that are distributed to consumer markets have succeeded, it does not take away from the need for more specific testing to be conducted.
According to an Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) audit of the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), the OIG found that the FSIS needed to re-evaluate its E. coli testing methodology of boxed beef items used for ground beef production. The March 2013 audit concluded that the FSIS "[does] not sample all boxed beef product." The issue is that many "downstream processors" such as grocery stores and butcher shops will grind their own ground beef, but the FSIS does not sample or test these shops for E. coli like they would at federally inspected plants. In addition the FSIS did not maintain adequate databases for tracing beef products back to the "originating slaughter establishment."
The FSIS has vowed to look into the practices and make the necessary changes. Luckily the FDA now has the direct authority to order instant recalls of products they believe to be contaminated, further protecting the consumer. The outbreak of E. coli is potentially dangerous, but there are already substantial federal oversight agencies that conduct testing and limit the spread of this pathogen. As time progresses, better systems will be put in place to further reduce the incidence levels, but currently there is no need to panic or not buy or consume ground beef.