Recalls of meat and poultry contaminated with dangerous E. coli–the most feared of the many foodborne bacteria–stayed at relatively low levels for a second year, but were still up by more than double from last year.

There were about 11 E coli recalls in 2010 involving 2.339 million pounds of meat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.  Although E coli contamination has been associated with many food products other than meat–from spinach to cookie dough–it is, however, never far from meat because the bacteria originate in the hindgut of cows.

And it is not possible to say that E. coli is done for the year.  Last year, it made a Christmas Eve appearance when Oklahoma-based National Steak and Poultry had to recall 280,00 pounds of blade-tenderized steaks sold at chain restaurants that were linked to E. coli O157:H7 illnesses in a half dozen states.

The first E. coli recall for 2010 followed a few days later on Jan. 11.  The Massachusetts Department of Health tested a ground beef sample collected during an epidemiological investigation and it came back positive for E. coli O157:H7.

That caused Adams Farm Slaughterhouse in Athol, MA to recall 2,575 pounds of beef products linked to the investigation.

A week later, on Jan 18 Huntington Meat Packing Inc. in Montebello, CA recalled 864,000 pounds of beef products for possible E.  coli O157:H7 contamination discovered by FSIS.  (Three weeks later Huntington added 4.9 million pounds to the recall.  The addition was for beef and veal was recalled because an ongoing FSIS investigation found it was produced outside the company’s food safety plan, not for O157.)

West Missouri Beef, based in Rockville, on Feb. 2 recalled 14,000 pounds of fresh boneless beef for E. coli O157:H7 contamination.  West Missouri’s bad beef was shipped in large bins weighing about 2,000 pounds each.

Exactly a month later, on March 2, the Asheboro, NC-based Randolph Packing Co. Inc. recalled 96,000 pounds of beef products for possible E. coli O157:H7 contamination.  The recall list included both boneless beef and beef rib eye.

Beltex Corp. in Fort Worth was the next recall, on April 21.  Its recall was for 135,000 pounds and included various beef trim products.

Montclair Meat Co. Inc., based in Montclair, CA, was next up on May 15 with a recall of 53,000 pounds of ground beef products.  Some of the E. coli O157: H7-contaminated meat included beef patties in various pound packages.

Montclair distributed beef to wholesalers, restaurants, institutions and other processors.

June brought two recalls, one from Crown I. Enterprises, located in Bay Shore, NY, and the other from South Gate Meat Co. in South Gate, CA.  They both were both for E. coli O157:H7 contamination and were both announced on June 22.

Crown I recalled 3,700 of ground beef and South Gate recalled 35,000 pounds of ground beef products in bulk packages.

A cluster of E. coli O157:H7 cases in Colorado during the first week in June led to the July 7 recall of 66,776 pounds of bison meat, including ground product and tenderized steaks.   

Henderson, CO-based Rocky Mountain Natural Meats recalled the bison.

The largest meat recall of the year for E. coli contamination came one month later on Aug. 6 when California’s Valley Meat Co., based in Modesto, recalled one million pounds of frozen ground beef patties and bulk ground beef.

The California Department of Public Health told FSIS on July 15 that it was investigating a cluster of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses that involved a rare strain as determined by PFGE sub typing.   

CDPH eventually linked seven people to the one million pound recall.

Perhaps the most interesting beef recall of 2010 is the last one.  On about Aug. 5, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources contacted FSIS about a cluster of E. coli 026 cases, two in Maine and one in New York State.

The cases were identified by a rare, indistinguishable PFGE pattern as determined by PFGE sub typing in PulseNet.  By Aug. 28 it led Cargill Meat Solutions to recall 8,500 pounds of ground beef packed in 42-pound cases.

The investigation brought a policy change for FSIS.  It said that in the future, a sample positive for either E. coli O157:H7 or E. coli 026 would cause FSIS to request a recall for product that entered commerce.

E coli 026 is one of a handful of non-O157 toxin-producing serotypes of E. coli that cause an estimated 36,700 illnesses; 1,100 hospitalizations, and 30 deaths a year.  The others include 045, 0103, 0111, 0121 and 0145.

The so-called non-O157 STECs have not yet been declared to be “adulterants” in meat as is O157:H7.  But FSIS asking for recalls where 026 is found in samples may move it closer to “adulterant” status.

This year’s E. coli recalls are at one of the lowest levels seen since 2006. They’ve come off a peak experienced in 2007 when nearly 34 million pounds of FSIS-regulated meat was recalled.

In 2008, meat recalls totaled just over 7 million pounds before falling further to just over 1.1 pounds in 2009.