It seems like an announcement that another batch of ground beef has been found to be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 is just around the corner.  In the second half of October 2009 alone, two major recalls were announced: Crocetti’s Oakdale Packing Co., recalled 1,039 lbs on October 26, and Fairbank Farms, recalled 545,699 lbs on October 31.

Common sense would suggest that this contaminated beef be sent straight to the dumpster. Yet this is not always the case. Instead, contaminated beef is often sent back to the meat packing plant where it is then cooked, prepared and packaged as pre-cooked hamburger that is shipped out to grocery stores across the country.

ground-beef-cooking.jpgWhile this may seem counter-intuitive and perhaps downright unethical, the current process of re-cooking and selling once-tainted meat is completely legal.  In fact, it is a common practice in the food industry. For example, during the massive ConAgra Beef Co. ground beef recall in 2002, as much as 70,000 lbs of E. coli-contaminated beef was re-used in canned chili, spaghetti sauce, beef ravioli, or some other ConAgra-made meal.

This was later called “standard procedure” by ConAgra spokesman Jim Herlihy.  

The frequency of E. coli beef recalls already has many consumers wary of the everyday beef that reaches their plates. How will they react to news of once-contaminated beef on the market?  Lisa Scannell, whose five-year-old son was sickened in the ConAgra outbreak, remains skeptical.  

“They’re (meat companies) asking me to trust them again, and that’s outrageous,” she said.  “They always blame people for not cooking the meat even though they’re the ones who put the E. coli there. I’m supposed to trust them now to cook it?”

An official from the Colorado Health Department suggested recalled beef should not end up as human food again.

“By definition of a federal recall, it’s not fit for human consumption,” said Patti Klocker, assistant director of the Colorado Department of Health and Environment Consumer Protection Division.  “We recommend that humans don’t consume it and that it shouldn’t be turned into something edible.”   

But the USDA insists that bad beef is safe to eat after it has been cooked per the established guidelines. “An E. coli contaminated beef product must not be distributed until it has been processed into a ready-to-eat product,” the regulations say.

Caleb Weaver, the press secretary for the USDA, confirmed these government allowances. “If the establishment finds a positive ground beef sample, they can implement steps to ensure the meat is safe to eat though proper cooking, and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) program personnel verify steps are taken to ensure that the meat is safe,” he said. “These steps would include delivering a full lethality treatment to positive product, and verifying, as a critical control point, that this lethality is met. The product is then safe to eat.”

Dr. David Acheson, managing director of food and import safety for the advising and investment firm Leavitt Partners, confirmed that modern processing methods make the beef sterile. “Often that (re-cooked beef) winds up being a canned product,” Acheson said. “When you can something, you really cook it to death. It is a massive kill.”

However, the fact remains that cooked bacteria are in the processed meat, and this could exacerbate the already unfavorable opinion many consumers have of beef on the market. “Even though cooking it to 165 degrees makes it sterile,” said Paul Johnson, former chairman of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection, “I still don’t like poop in my chili.”     

Although experts maintain that re-cooked beef is safe for consumption, there is one problem with current government regulations. Companies are not required to disclose whether products contain cooked, recalled meat, thereby reducing the ability of food safety inspectors to monitor the production these goods. Companies must test for dangerous bacteria in the meat and record test results in an official database available to government inspectors, but they are not required to report directly to the USDA.  And while Dr. Acheson agrees that weekly checks of the records should keep consumers safe, he concedes that more should be done in the way of food safety.

“If it’s done correctly then this is not something to scare consumers about,” he said, “but from a public health regulatory side, should it be a little tighter? Yeah, I think it should.” Dr. Acheson has two suggestions for the USDA: “Number one, they should inform the FDA that they found [E. coli]; and, number two, explain what they did to correct it.”