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One more look at lessons unlearned in raw burger outbreak

rare.hamburgerBefore the federal Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention went public with the first announcement of a multistate outbreak of E. coli O157:H7, the boss let everyone working on foodborne diseases know there was one “notable thing” about the brewpub chain involved.

“Advance notification that ’tis the season again,” said Dr. Robert V. Tauxe in an email to his troops. “This is a cluster of 9 cases of O157 infections, linked to ground beef in the Midwest. The most notable thing about it is there is a burger chain involved named Bar 145 (sort of like a cattle brand).

“They took that name,” Tauxe explained to CDC staff, “because that is the temperature to which they cook their burgers, 20 degrees below the USDA recommendations. Usually we have to ask what a restaurant’s cooking policy is, but this makes it clear from the getgo.”

Tauxe is deputy director of the Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases Division at CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases.   Three days after the Tauxe email, on May 19, 2014, the public first learned about the outbreak, which in the added days had grown to include a total of 11 people.

The 2014 outbreak that ended up sickening at least 12 people — with seven requiring hospitalization — was caused by ground beef burgers that were cooked rare or medium rare, several by Bar 145, the Ohio-based “gastropub” that specialized in undercooked burgers.

At the conclusion of the raw burger outbreak, Food Safety News sought more transparency out of local, state, and federal agencies that were involved and filed various Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Coming as it did, 21 years after undercooked hamburgers sold by Jack-in-the-Box were among the critical elements in the deadly E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that many thought would end the consumption of raw ground meat, the 2014 outbreak raises questions about lessons going unlearned.

The FOIA Office at the CDC responded to our request of Nov. 23, 2014, on Monday this week. It provided 32 pages of “responsive records,” while withholding some commercial or financial information that was deemed to be privileged or confidential pursuant to FOIA exemptions.

CDC’s emails appear to show the agency could have made a public announcement a day or two sooner in 2014, but it was held up while waiting for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to initiate a recall by the Detroit-based Wolverine Packing Co. Both CDC’s public notice and the 1.8 million-pound recall by Wolverine came on May 19, 2014.

Bar 145 logoWhile waiting for the brand of ground beef to be named, CDC did prepare recommendations for consumers and restaurants to use in cooking ground beef. These suggestions included cooking hamburgers and beef mixtures to 160 degrees, using a food thermometer. Also refrigerating raw and cooked meat within two hours after purchase, avoiding cross-contamination, and washing kitchen work surfaces, utensils, and hands with soap and water.

Documents previously obtained by Food Safety News showed illnesses occurred at several restaurants not associated with the Bar 145 chain, including a Kent, OH, steakhouse; a St. Louis brew pub; and a Farmington, MI, burger bar. How ground beef was cooked at those establishments is not known. However, two people who ate “very raw” burgers made from Wolverine beef at Stella’s Lounge in Grand Rapids, MI were included in the outbreak.

The Bar 145 restaurant chain, founded in 2011, is led by Jeremy Fitzgerald and George Simons. Food Safety News has been unsuccessful getting anyone at Bar 145 to talk about the chain’s raw burger philosophy.

The raw burger outbreak was declared over by CDC on June 20, 2014. In the end there were 12 confirmed cases from four states, with seven requiring hospitalization. CDC did use the outbreak as a teaching moment to remind the public and foodservice operators to cook ground beef thoroughly.

Ages of those who were infected in the 2014 outbreak were between 16 and 46. No one developed HUS and there were no deaths. Ohio and Michigan each had five cases, and Massachusetts and Missouri each had one.

Editor’s Note: James Andrews contributed to this report.

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