E. coli-tainted beef infects 21 people in 16 states

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By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Twenty-one people in 16 states have been infected in recent days with a potentially lethal strain of E. coli bacteria, after consuming beef in restaurants supplied by the same Oklahoma meat company, federal officials said.

The outbreak spurred the company, National Steak and Poultry, to voluntarily recall 248,000 pounds of beef Dec. 24. The products, which range from steaks to sirloin tips, were packaged in October and shipped to restaurants, hotels and institutions nationwide, according to the company.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service has only a partial list of restaurants that received the potentially tainted beef, including two chains, Moe's and Carino's Italian Grill, primarily in the West and Midwest.

The recall is considered a "class 1" or a "high health risk" by the USDA, which regulates the meat industry, because among the pathogens that can harm human health, E. coli O157:H7 is one of the most lethal. Even for those who survive, there can be long-term health effects.

Nine of the 21 sickened have been hospitalized, the USDA reported. The department has identified cases in six states -- Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, South Dakota and Washington

The agency said the contamination appears to have begun with tainted beef used for chopped steak that was "co-mingled" with other products in the plant. Jerry Mande, the USDA's deputy undersecretary for food safety, said the investigation is continuing. A telephone message left for the company was not returned.

The outbreak is considered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the agency that tracks national illness outbreaks, to be relatively small. But it is significant because it is at least the fourth associated with mechanically tenderized beef since 2000.

Mechanical tenderization softens tough cuts of beef by hammering the meat with metal needles or blades that break up muscle fibers and connective tissue. It is often used to improve the tenderness of roasts and steaks that are cooked at a processing plant before being sent to restaurants. In the meat industry, it is referred to as "needled" meat.

Consumer advocates say mechanical tenderization poses contamination risks in meats that are served rare, such as steaks, because it can bring bacteria from the surface of meat to the center of the cut. A rare steak may be cooked enough so that bacteria on the surface are killed but those inside the meat survive.

"This is something that's been coming along. It's not an overnight problem," said Carol L. Tucker-Foreman of Consumer Federation of America, part of a coalition that wrote to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in June to express concern about mechanically tenderized meat. "The USDA has been looking at this for a long time. . . . People have proposed ways to address it and nothing was done about it in the Clinton administration, the Bush administration and now the Obama administration."

At a minimum, the government should issue guidelines to consumers and the restaurant industry that specifically address mechanically tenderized meat, and the products should be labeled because consumers cannot detect whether a cut of meat has been "needled," she said. "Retailers should have to label mechanically tenderized meat and say 'Don't eat this product rare.' "

Mande said the USDA agrees that the public needs better information about the risks of mechanically tenderized beef, and the agency is considering labeling and education efforts.

But James H. Hodges, executive vice president of the American Meat Institute, said in a statement that mechanically tenderized beef carries no greater risk than other meat and that special labels are unnecessary.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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