E. coli O26 in crosshairs after ground-beef outbreak

by MeatPoultry Staff
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — A fresh look at tougher regulations to protect the nation's meat supply has been prompted by the first known U.S. outbreak linked to a rare strain of E. coli — O26 — in ground beef, according to The Associated Press.

This summer three people in Maine and New York became ill after eating ground beef traced back to a Cargill plant in Wyalusing, Pa. Cargill Meat Solutions, a subsidiary of Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc., recalled about 8,500 lbs. of ground beef on Saturday, and regulators warned consumers to throw out frozen meat purchased at BJ's Wholesale Clubs in eight eastern states. The ground beef had a use-by-or-freeze-by date of July 1.

Appointed undersecretary of food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture nine days before the recall, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen has signaled interest in expanding federal oversight of meat beyond the most prevalent strain of E. coli. "In order to best prevent illnesses and deaths from dangerous E. coli in beef, our policies need to evolve to address a broader range of these pathogens," Hagen said in a statement.

The New York Times reported the U.S.D.A. interest in federal oversight of other strains of E. coli following the Cargill recall.

At present the federal government requires meat plants to test for the most virulent strain of E. coli, O157:H7, which causes an estimated 70,000 illnesses a year. No test exist for the six other less common strains of E. coli, including the O26 version that sickened those involved the Cargill recall.

Tests aren't widely available to detect the other strains of E. coli, industry officials said. More testing isn't the most effective way to keep meat safe, they added.

"Testing doesn't make food safe in and of itself. You have to have some preventive measures in place," said James Hodges, the American Meat Institute’s executive vice president.

The latest outbreak shows the need to keep discussing oversight, said Cargill spokesman Mike Martin last Friday. He added Cargill worked with disease investigators to trace the outbreak and voluntarily recalled the product. He said none of the three people who became sick were hospitalized.

"Certainly, I think we need to take a fresh look at this because of the apparent linkage of O26 to beef," Martin said.
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