In September, the Topps Meat Company of Elizabeth, New Jersey, issued the second largest beef recall in U.S. history—21.7 million pounds of ground beef. The recall came after an investigation, carried out by the New York State Department of Health and the CDC, linked bacteria from Topps’s frozen ground beef patties to an outbreak of the O157:H7 strain of E. coli that sickened 40 people in eight states.
Infection with E. coli O157:H7—a virulent strain of the bacteria that inhabits cow guts and that in humans can cause severe diarrhea, kidney failure, and death—has in recent years been associated mostly with sewage-contaminated lettuce and spinach. This latest beef-linked epidemic marks an alarming rise in cases of E. coli tagged to tainted meat. According to the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service, the Topps recall was one of many such actions in 2007 involving ground beef products that harbor E. coli. (Another recall from a Pennsylvania plant occurred in early November.)
Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., says that the sudden spike may reflect lax sanitation at meat-processing plants, as evidenced by Topps’s own record: The company had recently cut its microbial testing of ground beef from once a month to three times a year.
“They have not found a way to control E. coli in the live animal,” DeWaal says, “so the processors have to treat every carcass as though it’s potentially contaminated.”
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