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E. Coli: Beef Recalls and Hamburger Safety

Several frozen hamburger meat recalls have been issued in the past month.  First it was the Cargill. Inc. plant in Butler, Wisconsin (supplying Sam’s Club) recall and now it’s the J&B Meats, Coal Valley, Illinois (supplying Tops and Sam’s Choice Brands).

So how does this meat get contaminated?  As I mentioned in an earlier blog post about cows, they are kind of dirty creatures.  They tend to stand around in manure and flick it all over themselves.  In addition, there are certain intestinal bacteria that colonize them (including a certain type of E. coli, called 0157:H7) that are harmless to them, but are very harmful to humans.  If their manure is used to fertilize veggies (or gets into the veggie’s water irrigation supply) - spinach poisoning can result. If the bacteria get into hamburger meat (as can happen during the butchering process and meat grinding) beef recalls may be in order.

E. coli 0157:H7 poisoning is scary because it can cause life-threatening illness (bloody diarrhea and kidney damage), especially in the young and immunocompromised. There are no antibiotics to treat it, and so the best “treatment” is prevention.

Keep in mind that the vast majority of meat is not contaminated with this bacteria, and that the small risk is usually associated with hamburger meat in particular. Ground beef (as you can imagine, though it’s a little disgusting to think about it) is more likely to have been in contact with the bacteria-laden intestines of the cow, since many different parts of the animal are used and ground into hamburger. It is much less likely for a whole steak, for example, to be contaminated with E. coli.

According to the USDA, one cannot rely on meat color to be sure that a sufficiently high temperature has been achieved in the cooking process. The best way to be sure that your hamburgers have been hot enough to kill any potential bacteria lurking therein is to use a thermometer and to make sure that the center of the meat reaches 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

So the take home message is this:

  • Ground beef may be contaminated with E. coli bacteria, especially if it’s purchased at Sam’s Club or Tops.
  • Regular beef is less likely to be contaminated.
  • Don’t rely on meat color to ensure that it’s safe to eat.
  • Cook all red meat to 160 degrees Fahrenheit to be sure that any bacterial contaminants are killed.
  • See your doctor immediately if you have bloody diarrhea, fever, or other symptoms of E. coli poisoning.

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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One Response to “E. Coli: Beef Recalls and Hamburger Safety”

  1. Expatchef says:

    To clarify, cows in FEED LOTS are more likely to stand in their own feces due to overcrowding. They are also fed a diet of corn instead of their natural diet of grass. This results in rapid weight gain that gets them to market quicker, but it is very hard on the cow. This means they feed the cows antibiotics to keep them healthy. In turn, an antibiotic-resistant strain of E. coli is developed. Because only a few slaughterhouses do the processing for the majority of beef, the cows are run through at a quick rate. The contaminated parts get into the meat. If this only happens with one animal, it still jeopardizes many consumers since all of the meat is mixed together when ground from hundreds of cows, then sent all over the country. We buy locally-raised grass fed beef that is never put on a feed lot, not fed antibiotics and is slaughtered one at a time, carefully and humanely. Knowing where you food comes from, and making sure it is raised naturally is the best approach to prevention.

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