E. Coli Scares: A Bad Week for Burgers

Friday, Oct. 5, was not a good day for meat lovers. The first recall in its 67-year history proved to be the last for the Topps Meat Co., which claimed to be the country's largest producer of frozen hamburger patties. Topps shut its doors for good Friday after an E. coli outbreak that infected at least 30 people in eight states was traced back to its Elizabeth, N.J., plant. In one of the largest recalls in the country's history, 21.7 million pounds of frozen ground beef products that came from the plant over the past year—between Sept. 25, 2006, and Sept. 25, 2007—were voluntarily recalled after the United States Department of Agriculture (which does not actually have the authority to order recalls, but can halt production) served the company a "notice of intended enforcement."

Later that same day, Sam's Club announced that it was pulling frozen hamburgers made by agribusiness conglomerate Cargill Inc. from its shelves across the country. Minnesota health officials were investigating four cases of children infected with E. coli traced to the burgers. Sam's Club owner Wal-Mart Stores Inc. issued a statement saying the warehouse club is removing the American Chef's Selection Angus Beef patties from U.S. locations and giving refunds to customers who already purchased the burgers.

In a conference call with reporters on Thursday, USDA and Food Safety and Inspection Service officials noted that this has been an unusually busy season for the E. coli 0157:H7 strain. "We had three really good years where the number of E. coli infections related to ground beef were declining or very low," said Richard Raymond, Under Secretary for Food Satefy at the FSIS. "Something happened this summer ... [W]e saw the sample numbers go up, we saw the recall numbers go up, we saw human illnesses attributed to ground beef go up."

E. coli O157:H7 is one of hundreds of strains of the bacterium Escherichia coli, according to the Centers for Disease Control Web site. Although most strains are harmless, this one produces a powerful toxin that can cause abdominal cramps, diarrhea, kidney failure (as in the case of a Florida girl who ate tainted Topps meat and whose family is now suing the company) and even death. This particular strain was first recognized as a cause of illness in 1982 during an outbreak of severe bloody diarrhea and was ultimately traced to contaminated hamburgers. Since then, more infections in the United States have been caused by eating undercooked ground beef than by any other food, according to the CDC.

Although E. coli O157:H7 can live in the intestines of healthy cattle, deer, goats and sheep, the increasing infection rates among people who've eaten tainted meat is vexing to health experts and industry professionals. "We don't know why numbers of this very dangerous strain spiked this year," says Jeremy Russell, director of communications for the National Meat Association, a group that represents meat processors, suppliers and exporters. "Nothing was being done any differently. But across the board they found more of it. And when you're in an industry like this you're only as good as your weakest player." (Russell adds that Topps was not a member of the NMA.)

FSIS officials said that Topps was commingling meat from one day to the next, making it nearly impossible to immediately pinpoint the entry-point of the E. coli (which also explains the sheer size of the recall), and that they questioned the effectiveness of "the overall design of the plant's food safety system." But other industry-watchers suggest the rising number of E. coli occurrences points to systemic flaws in the meat-processing industry. "The E. coli [probably]did not originate in the Topps plant," writes Eric Schlosser, the muckraking author of "Fast Food Nation," in an e-mail to NEWSWEEK. "It came from the slaughterhouse that shipped meat to Topps. I am not defending any of the food safety practices at Topps, but we have a systemic problem here starting in the feedlots, spreading in the slaughterhouses, and winding up in the ground beef at plants that make frozen patties. Putting Topps out of business isn't going to solve that fundamental problem." A spokeswoman for Topps declined to list the slaughterhouses that supplied meat for grinding to Topps, adding that an investigation of suppliers was being undertaken in conjunction with the USDA.

Meat can become contaminated during slaughter when it comes into contact with the contents of an animal's intestines, and organisms can be accidentally mixed into meat when it is ground up, according to the CDC. It is eating this meat, especially ground beef, when it has not been cooked sufficiently to kill E. coli O157:H7 that can cause infection. "This particular bug was not a problem before the industrialization of the meat supply," says Michael Pollan, an investigative journalist and food writer. "It's an adaptation to the feedlot diet [which is composed of corn, ethanol byproducts and other grain feed]. Animals who get a proper diet and are outside eating grass don't get much of it. Even if you give the animals fresh hay in the last days of their lives, the E. coli burden drops 80 percent. But it would just screw up the workings of the [industry]. The other way [to reduce risk] is to slow down the lines, if you could butcher with more care."

Others are less convinced there is a system-wide problem. "I think it's shown up in bigger numbers in feedlots probably because it's passed from one animal to another easier," says Len Steiner, an industry consultant who has worked with Topps. "When you pack people together in cities, diseases pass between them easier. If you're living in the plains with five miles between households, you're less likely to get sick. I think it's the nature of the world." Steiner also points out that Americans will consume 28 billion pounds of beef this year and the vast majority of them won't get sick. "The reality is if you cook the meat you'll never have a problem. I eat beef a lot and I may get indigestion from time to time, but I don't get sick. No one will ever get sick if you fully cook the meat. This isn't rocket science." Which may be true, concedes Pollan, but if there is indeed manure in the meat, however microscopic, you're still eating cooked manure.