Declaring that the outbreak “appears to be over,” the CDC today reported that multiple suppliers, distributors and or brands of ground beef are likely behind an E. coli O103 outbreak this spring that sickened more than 200 people.

Additional patients could be confirmed through laboratory analysis. Also, if recalled meat was stored in freezers, people may not be aware of the hazard and become infected while handling and eating it. There is also concern that recalled beef stored in freezers may have been taken out of its original packaging, making it impossible to identify. Freezing does not kill E. coli. 

While through cooking to more than 160 degrees F kills E. coli bacteria, people and cooking tools can become cross contaminated during the process. Steps for safe handling and cooking of ground beef are repeated throughout the update today from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Two companies posted ground beef recalls during the 10-state outbreak. The outbreak strain was found in product from one of them. Traceback information and patient information, however, did not allow investigators to pinpoint a single source.

“USDA-FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) conducted traceback investigations to determine the source of ground beef supplied to grocery stores and restaurants where ill people ate. Ill people in this outbreak ate ground beef from many sources. No single supplier, distributor, or brand of ground beef was identified. Consumers should handle ground beef safely and cook it thoroughly,” according to the CDC update.

The CDC reported of the 191 patients for whom the information was available, 29 of them, or 15 percent, were so sick they had to be admitted to hospitals. No deaths were confirmed. Illnesses started on dates from March 1 through May 1. The sick people ranged from less than 1 year to 84 years old, with a median age of 18. Two patients developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which is a type of severe kidney failure. 

Of 159 confirmed patients who were interviewed by outbreak investigators, 125, or 79 percent, reported eating ground beef in the days before becoming sick. They said they bought or ate ground beef from several different grocery stores and restaurants. 

“Many ill people bought large trays or chubs of ground beef from grocery stores and used the meat to make dishes like spaghetti and sloppy joe,” according to the CDC.

“Officials at USDA-FSIS, in Kentucky, and in Tennessee collected ground beef from a restaurant and an institution where ill people reported eating. Laboratory testing identified the outbreak strain of E. coli O103 in the ground beef collected in Tennessee. A different strain of E. coli O103 was identified in the ground beef collected in Kentucky. This strain was not linked to illnesses.”

The CDC reported that FSIS and state regulatory officials collected ground beef samples for testing from retailers and establishments. All of those product samples were negative for E. coli. 

The two companies that recalled raw ground beef products related to the E. coli outbreak were:

Grant Park Packing in Franklin Park, IL, recalled 53,200 pounds of raw ground beef products on April 24.

  • Recalled products were sold in 40-lb. bulk cardboard boxes of “North Star Imports & Sales, LLC. 100% GROUND BEEF BULK 80% LEAN/ 20% FAT” marked “FOR INSTITUTIONAL USE ONLY” with lot code GP.1051.18 and pack dates 10/30/2018, 10/31/2018, and 11/01/2018.
  • Recalled products are labeled with establishment number “EST. 21781” inside the USDA mark of inspection on the boxes.

K2D Foods, doing business as Colorado Premium Foods, in Carrollton, GA, recalled 113,424 pounds of raw ground beef products on April 23.

  • Recalled products were sold in two 24-lb. vacuum-packed packages in cardboard boxes containing raw “GROUND BEEF PUCK” with “Use Thru” dates of 4/14/19, 4/17/19, 4/20/19, 4/23/19, 4/28/19, and 4/30/19.
  • Recalled products are labeled with establishment number “EST. 51308” inside the USDA mark of inspection.

Investigation details
This multistate investigation began on March 28 when officials in Kentucky and Georgia notified CDC of this outbreak. Epidemiologic and laboratory evidence indicated that ground beef was the likely source of this outbreak.

Public health labs use DNA fingerprinting on E. coli bacteria isolated from ill people by using techniques called pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) and whole genome sequencing (WGS).

WGS performed on E. coli from ill people in this outbreak showed they were likely to share a common source of infection.

Consumers and restaurants should always handle and cook ground beef safely to avoid foodborne illness. Thoroughly cook ground beef and any food that contains ground beef to kill germs. Never eat, serve, or sell recalled ground beef. 

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)