E.Coli O157: H7 Refresher Course
Barbara Young

A high-level executive on the operations side of a major meat-processing business has the right idea concerning the industry’s responsibility to produce products that can’t hurt consumers no matter what is done to them. That is to say no matter how the meat is handled and prepared after sale, it should pose no health hazards. This is most ambitious, but who among us can fail to appreciate the goal? What is perfection after all, if not the desire to do no harm? There was no reason for this executive to spout schemes that often masquerade as ideas, for he was not being interviewed. We were just chatting about nothing in particular. I did mention, however, that recalls seem to be increasing to my amazement given the industry’s diligence and innovation concerning food-safety matters. Anybody who has experienced a bout of painful cramps or worse yet, undergone medical treatment after a food-poisoning diagnosis, does not soon forget the experience. This executive and his wife are among such victims as are the people who became ill after ingesting steak products suspected of E. coli O157:H7 contamination.
The recent USDA/Food Safety and Inspection Service Web site posting (www.fsis.usda.gov) as of June 21, 2007, showed that ground beef and other beef products led the list of 14 recalls, hitting the high mark with approximately 6.4 million pounds. Several illnesses were linked to steak products produced in Pennsylvania prompting a recall of approximately 259,230 pounds of meat.
The FSIS directive noted that steaks are not considered a high-risk source of E. coli O157:H7, but the products in the recall had been injected with tenderizers and flavor-enhancing solutions. That process may have transferred the bacteria from the surface to the inside of the product. Therefore, FSIS reminds food preparers that mechanically tenderized beef products or those injected with a marinade or solution require a higher cooking temperature to achieve microbiological safety than is the case concerning non-mechanically tenderized steaks. Moreover, such products should not be served “rare.”
All the beef products were Class I recalls, meaning high health risks, except products produced in Washington State, which were Class II or a low health risk. The beef products in this case were deemed recallable because they “may have been produced using non-potable water after state department health testing.”
Although these occurrences are disconcerting, the fact is that there is a known high-incident season in which E. coli is a greater threat than at other times. Critical months are April through October, according to the Beef Industry Food Safety Council (BIFSCO), which exists as a beef-industry cooperative. Rain and mud are the culprits during these months necessitating extra care in the hide removal process at slaughter. This group develops industry-wide, science-based strategies to solve problems related to E. coli O157:H7 and other foodborne pathogens in beef.
For a review of critical steps designed to thwart the ravages of E. coli O157:H7 and perhaps avoid product recalls, check out BIFSCO’s to-do list. Call contacts at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (303-850-3343/3303) or check out the Web site at www.bifsco.org.
When it comes to foodborne pathogens, information is the best weapon. We must all keep on learning. But we must also recognize the need to take a refresher course now and then.