The E. coli problem in the US meat supply

A report by the Environmental Working Group on Wednesday found widespread contamination of US cattle with E. coli at beef production plants across the country. According to EWG, which analyzed US Department of Agriculture…

The E. coli problem in the US meat supply

A report by the Environmental Working Group on Wednesday found widespread contamination of US cattle with E. coli at beef production plants across the country.

According to EWG, which analyzed US Department of Agriculture inspection records, 73% of US beef-packing plants tested positive for E. coli between 2008 and 2014, citing data from a USDA auditing practice. The centers often test for E. coli even though they don’t know whether the “problem” bacteria is present, EWG said.

Included in the tainted mix are bugs that cause food poisoning and campylobacteriosis, a commonly found bacterial infection that can cause diarrhoea, headaches and stomach pain.

The problem is worse in the South, where 56% of the plants tested positive for E. coli between 2008 and 2014. That number dropped to 14% in the Midwest and West, which EWG says could mean contamination problems are getting more concentrated in certain areas.

According to the EWG report, outbreaks stemming from E. coli contamination between 2010 and 2012 were found to be “virtually non-existent” for beef from states that didn’t test positive for E. coli.

The testing practice known as “tolerance level testing” lets companies know the number of E. coli bacteria it’s safe to put in a product. It’s designed to help animals with a low-risk of contamination. But according to the EWG report, that threshold often includes beef from beef-packing plants with “insignificant” risk of contamination.

At 44 of the 106 reported beef plants tested by the USDA between 2008 and 2013, E. coli levels didn’t change, despite the establishments testing for the organism or producing meat more than 15,000 times, according to the report.

Although the report was released Wednesday, beef plants have had to issue new guidelines since it was released, according to the USDA.

“Traditionally,” the agency said in a statement, “the producer and packing plant used different compliance systems, guidelines and standards, which reflected variation in the risks associated with food-borne pathogens. The program has been overhauled to align the standards more closely with production risk assessments, and more closely promote producer leadership.”

In 2007, the USDA tightened the requirements for how long meat can sit at a certain temperature before being inspected. That change allowed cattle at risk of E. coli to be finished on a less potent type of feed (plants deemed “excellent risks”) before having to be tested, according to the USDA. That potentially lowered the chances of E. coli contamination.

The bottom line: You can’t take your beef back from the store. But you can protect yourself by getting to know where it comes from.

“The safest kind of hamburger is hamburger,” said William Marler, a Seattle lawyer who represented sickened consumers in the first tainted hamburger lawsuit in 2006. “The healthier the burger, the more food safety you get and the lower the risk.”

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