Yesterday’s big beef recall is the largest in history for possible Salmonella contamination, according to an online discussion involving retired USDA microbiologist Carl Custer. 

Custer responded to comments to the industry newsletter Meatingplace that included this one: “Never such a massive recall on ground beef related to Salmonella,” “Not saying it’s a bad thing since it is Newport — nasty little bugger — and illnesses linked.”

Carl Custer

Custer, who retired from government service in 2007, remains active as a highly independent consultant. He is a lifetime member of the International Food Protection Association (IAFP) and the American Society for Microbiology. He was also a member of the Food Microbiology Research Conference executive board for 12 years, serving as chair for two years.

He now finds himself monitoring the 6.9 million pound recall of beef that is the probable source of a 16-state Salmonella Newport outbreak involving 57 people with confirmed infections. The traceback investigation found JBS Tolleson as the principal supplier of the beef, and the Arizona plant initiated the recall early Thursday.

Later in the day, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 14 people have been hospitalized, but reported no deaths. Illness onset dates recorded so far run from Aug. 5 to Sept. 6. The recall notice yesterday, Oct. 4, was the first time government notified the public about the outbreak.

Custer responded to a comment by “Meater”  on the potential for the massive recall being “a new precedent.”

“USDA-FSIS has been doing Salmonella monitoring on red meats for a few years now and has a lot of data,”  the comment continued. USDA data shows over 11,000 samples and 1,200-plus establishments tested annually with 2.79 percent ‘calculated’ incidence rate on ground beef; 1.56 percent on manufacturing trim; 5.95 percent on RBG components (doesn’t explain what that is) in the latest data set.”

It said the data is not broken down by species of Salmonella.

But Custer does say the JBS recall is “Deja vu — again.”

“This is another case of FSIS treating virulent strains of Salmonella as adulterants (which they are according to the definition in the Meat & Poultry Acts),” he said. “You may remember the recalls of Foster Farms raw chicken in 2015 (Salmonella Heidelberg) and Kapowsin Meats whole hogs in 2016 due to Salmonella I 4,[5],12:i:- (a monophasic variant of S.Typhimurium). These are outbreak strains.”

FSIS has not declared Salmonella as an adulterant in meat as it has for some pathogens, such as like E. coli O157:H7. The federal government put E. coli O157:H7 on the adulterant list after the deadly 1993 Jack in the Box outbreak.

The JBS recall, which was expanded by 400,000 pounds on Thursday, caused Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro to call for FSIS to update ground beef safety standards that have not changed since 1996.

“FSIS no longer monitors ground beef against the 1996 standard, nor do they require beef processors to designate Salmonella as a hazard in the plant-specific plans to reduce contaminants,” wrote the Connecticut Democrat.

“That is unacceptable and has put people across the country at unnecessary risk to foodborne illnesses.”

JBS Tolleson is a unit of JBS USA, which itself is a wholly-owned subsidiary of JBS S.A., the Brazilian company that is the world’s top beef producer.

FSIS considers it likely that some of the 3,450 tons of recalled beef remain in frozen storage in home and commercial freezers. “Consumers who have purchased these products are urged not to consume them,” the recall announcement says. “These products should be thrown away or returned to the place of purchase.”

The recalled products bear the establishment number “EST. 267” inside the USDA mark of inspection. The recalled beef was shipped to retail locations and institutions nationwide. The recalled products list is 31-pages long and may be accessed only in PDF form here.  The raw, non-intact beef items, including ground beef, were packaged on various dates from July 26 to Sept. 7 this year.

CDC tips for ground beef
In general, consumers and restaurants should always handle and cook ground beef safely to avoid foodborne illness. It is important to handle and prepare all ground beef products carefully.

  • Don’t eat raw or undercooked ground beef.
  • Cook ground beef hamburgers and mixtures such as meatloaf to 160°F internal temperature. Use a food thermometer to make sure the meat has reached a safe internal temperature. You can’t tell whether meat is safely cooked by looking at it.
  • Ask that ground beef hamburgers and mixtures be cooked to 160°F internal temperature when ordering at a restaurant.
  •  Wash hands and items that came into contact with raw ground beef—including countertops, utensils, dishes, and cutting boards—with soap and water.

Editor’s Note:   After its original posting, some minor changes were made to this story so quotes are correctly attributed and to acknowledge comments were in response to a Meatingplace article.

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