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October 6, 2007

E. coli in Minnesota

This one hits pretty close to home for me.  Cargill-produced frozen hamburger sold through Sam's Club has been linked to four cases of E coli 0157:H7 in Minnesota.  This is from the Minnesota Department of Health news release:

E. coli O157:H7 cases linked to frozen ground beef patties purchased at Sam’s Club stores in August and September
Product removed from store shelves; customers asked to return or destroy

State health and agriculture officials are investigating four cases of E. coli O157:H7 infection in Minnesota residents associated with eating ground beef patties purchased from Sam’s Club stores in August and September.

Routine monitoring by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) found that the cases of illness were caused by E. coli O157:H7 with the same DNA fingerprint. All four cases were related to pre-made frozen ground beef patties purchased at Sam’s Club stores in the Twin Cities metro area. The people became ill between September 10 and 20 after consuming the meat. The brand name of the implicated frozen ground beef patties was “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.”

October 6, 2007 in food safety | Permalink

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The US Beef Supply is Safe?

William D. Marler J.D. (www.marlerblog.com)

Dr. Richard Raymond, Under Secretary for Food Safety at the USDA/FSIS told us last week: “our meat supply is the safest in the world.” This when in the past days Topps, a company in operation for nearly 70 years closes its doors and recalls 21 million pounds of ground meat after sickening 30, and Cargil, one of the largest food producers in the US, recalls hamburger after sickening 4 children in Minnesota. ”The US beef supply is safe?” Well, I suppose the thought is that if the lie is big enough we will not notice?

While watching a business like Topps shut down and people lose their jobs is tragic, we’ve seen it before and for the same reasons. It appears that significant food safety errors and omissions that occurred repeatedly for over a year are what led to the closure. Remember, 21.7 million pounds of hamburger has been recalled. That is one year’s production. It is inconceivable that of the 87 Topps employees and managers, not one of them caught the mistake – which apparently happened every day for a year – that allowed E. coli to enter the plant and contaminate ground beef products. Topps should have had a hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP) plan in place to aid the now-unemployed workers in identifying areas in the manufacturing process where contamination was likely to occur.

Earlier this year J. Patrick Boyle, President and Chief Executive of the American Meat Institute, wrote in part in the New York Times: “Since 1999, the incidence of E. coli in ground beef samples tested by the Agriculture Department has declined by 80 percent to a fraction of a percent, a level once thought impossible.” In January 2007 I agreed with Mr. Boyle. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, E. coli outbreaks linked to tainted meat declined by some 42 percent over the last five years. Perhaps our beef was safer in January but something has changed, and it has not changed for the better.

A decade ago most of my clients were sickened by E. coli-tainted meat. In fact, between 1993 and 2002 I represented hundreds of children with acute kidney failure caused by consuming E. coli-tainted ground beef. And, then it nearly stopped. For the last five years there were few recalls or illnesses tied to ground beef. I touted the meat industry as a model of what an industry could do that was right to protect consumers.

But then it changed this spring. Since April of this year, 30 million pounds of red meat, mostly ground beef products, has been recalled. To put that in perspective, that is enough red meat to make 120 million hamburgers. E. coli illnesses once on a downturn have spiked. Kids are getting sick, seriously sick, again – nearly 100 since April. Topps Meat Company expanded its 300,00-pound recall to include 21 million pounds of ground beef. This recall tops the Con Agra recall of 19 million pounds in 2002 that sickened over forty and killed one and is just under the 25 million pounds recalled by now-bankrupt Hudson Foods in 1997.

We also learned in the past few days that Dr. Raymond’s food safety bureaucracy knew weeks in advance that our meat supply might be tainted by Topps meat and did not alert the public until dozens of children had already become ill. And he tells us: ”the US beef supply is safe?”

One would think that with hundreds of Americans poisoned that Dr. Raymond would not be acting as the “cheerleader in chief” for the beef industry, but would be asking one simple question – “What is going on?” Clearly, the USDA/FSIS seems incapable of asking simple questions.

Congress needs to act now. It is time for Congress to accept a leadership role and call hearings on “How safe is our meat supply, really?” Hearings need to not only explore the reasons for the past months’ outbreaks, but also to help prevent the next one. Congress must reach out to all facets of the meat industry, from “farm to fork,” to consumers who bear the burden of illnesses, and to academics and regulators to find reasonable, workable solutions to prevent the next meat-related illnesses. More regulation may not help. Testing all products may not be feasible. More funding for the CDC and USDA may not be enough. And, more research at universities may not find all of the answers. But, getting everyone concerned to the same table is a start.

Several times a month Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer, through his non-profit, Outbreak Inc., speaks to industry and government on why it is important to prevent foodborne illnesses. He is also a frequent commentator on food litigation and food safety on www.marlerblog.com.

Posted by: Bill Marler | Oct 6, 2007 5:47:54 PM

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