USDA may find courage to outlaw bacteria in your burgers that sickens 30,000 a year

Do you ever wonder why the beef industry and government warn consumers to “cook the life out of your burgers?”

To understand what’s behind these words of caution we need to discuss some facts, acronyms, how the food poisoning, especially from E. coli, is caused and, of course, the ever-present result of the pathogen, bloody diarrhea.

One of President Obama’s first initiatives was to improve the safety of America’s food supply. The Senate has yet to pass the much-touted Food Safety bill and consumer activists say the status-quo hasn’t changed in most food safety agencies. But recent actions by USDA’s new top food safety doc, Elizabeth Hager, my be a sign that change can happen. Photo from Obama Foodorams

First, E. coli is short for Escherichia coli, a bacteria that inhabits the gastrointestinal tract of humans and other warmblooded mammals. There are hundreds of strains of E. coli. Some are beneficial, part of the gut’s normal flora. Many are harmless. But several, like E. coli 0157, can cause hemolytic-uremic syndrome, or HUS, which can produce the signature abnormal bleeding, kidney failure, central nervous system disruption, seizures, coma and death.

The ones that do harm are often tagged STEC (Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli), which was discovered more than a century ago by a Japanese microbiologist named Shiga. He documented the link between contact with feces and the dangerous pathogen.

Consider this uncomfortable reality: E. coli lives in the intestines of even healthy cattle, and so it’s almost assured that most, if not all, cow feces carry the pathogens.

All it takes to understand how feces contaminates beef heading to market is to spend just a few minutes in almost any of the 6,000 federally inspected slaughterhouses and meat processing plants in the United States.

There is a clipboard-carrying inspector, often in a blood smudged white coat and hardhat, from the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Services in every meat processing operation in America.

“But basically what they are doing is no different than what inspectors have been doing for 100 years. They are looking at stuff,” attorney Marler said.

At the turn of the last century, when inspectors were first put in these plants, the things they were looking for were tumors, animals that were clearly tubercular.

“Nowadays, when 50 e. coli 0157 bacterium will kill and 100,000 would fit on the head of a pin, you could look at a carcass all day long and you can’t tell whether it’s contaminated or not,” the lawyer said..

E. coli from the cow’s intestines or fecal material on the hide is often spread throughout the beef-processing plants. The speed of mass production in the commercial slaughterhouse or high-speed butchering lines often overwhelms efforts to keep the operations clean.

The pathogen can be found on steaks and roasts, but this isn’t a health problem, the industry says, because these solid cuts of beef don’t provide bacteria access into the meat below the surface and can be rinsed with ammonia or other anti-bacterial treatment.

Ground beef is a completely different story.

The grinding of E. coli-tainted leftover trim from steaks and roasts — and fat and unmarketable meat waste purchased from U.S. plants and foreign suppliers — is almost a fail-proof technique for mixing E. coli through the soon-to-be-burgers.

This blend cannot be doused with bug-killing ammonia, and E. coli bacteria survive refrigerator and freezer temperatures. So all too often, a bacteria-laced product is on the way to your neighborhood store and, ultimately, your grill or skillet. With it comes the consumer warning from industry and the government: “If you’re worried, cook the life out of your burgers.”

With this background, the importance of what I reported  today on AOL News may make a bit more sense

For years. many food safety experts have been voicing concern over six strains of E. coli that was sickening, and sometimes killing more than 30,000 people a year.  These illnesses came, not from the much-publicized E. coli O157, but strains that USDA refused to outlaw or even consider dangerous.

Repeatedly, the agency said USDA repeatedly said that “There is no indication that these strains are a health problem for anyone.”

But. last week,  a different message was conveyed in a second-story office in the USDA building overlooking the National Mall..

It was exactly a month and a day after Dr. Elisabeth Hagen was sworn in as the USDA’s undersecretary for food safety. She quietly convened a meeting in her office with a physician, a lawyer, a Montana meat packer and the mother of a boy who died after eating at a fast food restaurant. The four, each in his or her own way, had worked passionately for years, prodding, cajoling and pleading that the agency demand that American meat producers ensure that they sold no beef containing six ignored strains of E. coli.

According to the visitors, Hagen told them she understood the danger of the unregulated pathogens and the harm they were doing. But it was also understood that it would be a difficult task because the meat industry would fight hard against the safety improvements, which would cost it dearly to deliver safer beef to consumers. Difficult fight or not, most left the meeting believing it was a battle that Hagen was willing to lead.

For the whole story, actually, three of them, check out what I wrote on AOL News today.


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