Bad beef sickens fewer people this time
USDA says awareness campaign working
August 16, 1997
Web posted at: 7:09 p.m. EDT (2309 GMT)
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Contaminated beef patties distributed nationwide have made relatively few people sick, and a top U.S. Department of Agriculture official says that means the public awareness measures put in place after a similar but deadly episode in 1993 are working.
On Friday, the USDA expanded a recall of frozen beef patties to over 1.2 million pounds produced in June at the Hudson Foods plant in Columbus, Nebraska. The beef patties may be contaminated with a strain of E. coli bacteria.
Though this ranks as one of the largest food recalls ever, Undersecretary for Food Safety Cathy Woteki said there have been no reports that anybody has gotten ill after eating the contaminated beef at restaurants.
|USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety Catherine Woteki
comments on why people who ate Hudson products from fast food
restauraunts have not gotten sick:
170K/15 sec. AIFF or WAV sound
And federal health officials have been able to link the bad beef to the illnesses of just 15 people who ate the meat cooked at home or at cookouts. None of the illnesses was fatal; all were in Colorado.
By contrast, in 1993 four children died and hundreds got sick from eating undercooked hamburgers infected with E. coli sold at fast food restaurants in the Pacific Northwest.
Woteki attributes the difference to the fact that cooks have gotten the message that ground beef should not be served unless it is thoroughly cooked.
"They're cooking their product, and they're cooking it to the guidelines that we've distributed," she said.
Cooking ground beef thoroughly to a temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit (71 degrees Celsius) kills any E. coli that may be present, she said.
The outbreak of E. coli-related illnesses in 1993 prompted a review of meat inspection and handling guidelines by the USDA. Restaurants and consumers were advised against serving or eating raw hamburger or hamburger that hadn't been cooked to 160 degrees.
E. coli contamination is believed to arise during the slaughtering and packing process, when fecal matter from the intestines of cattle, where the bacteria is found naturally, comes into contact with beef.
Under an initiative launched last year, federal meat inspectors began plans to check meat not just with their eyes but also with their microscopes.
"We are going to introducing a new science-based inspection system that, over the coming years, is going to reduce the levels of bacteria in the food supply," Woteki said. "(In large plants) that inspection is going to begin in January of next year. It's going to involve microbiological testing both for E. coli and for salmonella."
But Woteki conceded that current inspections are less than perfect.
"Usually our inspectors ... can recognize these intestinal smears (and) isolate the affected carcasses. But occasionally, that doesn't happen," she said.
The best protection is for consumers? Use a meat thermometer to verify that they cook hamburgers to 160 degrees, she said.
Correspondent Alan Duke contributed to this report.