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USDA E. coli Policy Questioned After Beef Recall

Late Friday night, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Cargill Inc. was recalling about 8,500 pounds of ground beef for possible E. coli contamination.

According to the USDA, two E. coli illnesses in Maine and one in New York prompted the recall. None of the three required hospitalization, a Cargill spokesman told CNN yesterday.

The recalled meat was processed at Cargill Meat Solutions in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania. BJ’s Wholesale Club stores in Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia are believed to have received the products.

The product was shipped June 11 to distribution centers, and was then repackaged and sold under various retail brand names. Public health officials have not identified the brands. The recalled product bears the USDA establishment number “EST. 9400,” a product code of “W69032” and a “use/freeze by” date of July 1.

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service said it became aware of the problem on August 5, and eventually “determined that there is an association between the ground beef products subject to recall and the cluster of illnesses in the states of Maine and New York.”

The identified strain in the ongoing outbreak and recall is E. coli O26, which can cause bloody diarrhea, dehydration, and, in severe cases, kidney failure.

The recall is considered “Class I,” which means the the government has determined “there is a reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death.”

Food safety advocates and lawmakers have been pressing the USDA to regulate E. coli O26 and several other disease-causing strains of E. coli.

“It took a massive outbreak in 1993 for the USDA and beef industry to accept E. coli O157:H7 as an ‘adulterant,’ which means that it is actively tested for in our food supply.  Its presence in beef halts distribution and triggers a recall,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle-based food safety attorney and advocate, in a widely-distributed press release.  “The USDA and beef industry know well that there are at least six additional strains of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli: O45, O111, O121, O145, O103 and O26 that are highly dangerous to humans and should not exist in food.”

Marler Clark, publisher of Food Safety News, recently sponsored a $500,000 study to determine the prevalence of these toxins in the commercial beef supply.  The study found these pathogens in nearly 1 percent of retail ground beef samples.  In October 2009, the firm filed a petition to the USDA requesting the change in policy.

It is estimated by the CDC that the six unregulated strains of E. coli sicken over 30,000 people a year and kill dozens.

USDA said Friday the agency “strongly encourage(s) consumers to check their freezers and immediately discard any product subject to this recall.”

For more information on the specific labels, and, when available, the list of retail locations affected, see the FSIS recall page.

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