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How Much More Tainted Hamburger Meat?

April 22, 1993|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The deadly bacteria linked to undercooked hamburgers on the Pacific Coast is responsible for more illnesses in the general population than previously believed, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

In the current issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the agency provides the most comprehensive information to date on the January outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 that caused more than 500 illnesses and four deaths in Washington, California, Idaho and Nevada. Virtually all the confirmed cases reported eating hamburgers at Jack in the Box restaurants or were later infected by someone who did eat at the fast food chain.

The latest CDC report contradicts the position of food industry groups who have claimed that E. coli 0157:H7 is a "rare" organism and that the recent outbreak was an aberration.

Physicians and other medical personnel often fail to recognize E. coli 0157:H7 because most hospitals do not routinely test for the organism. Also, when stool cultures are analyzed it is often done with an inappropriate method for detecting E. coli 0157:H7. During the recent outbreak in Nevada, for instance, health officials used the wrong laboratory test.

Similar mistakes may preclude the federal government from quickly detecting the next such outbreak. In fact, the CDC report stated that health officials in California, Nevada and Idaho might have failed to detect the E. coli 0157:H7 incident had not Washington state health officials acted especially quickly in making the link to undercooked hamburger.

CDC officials believe that the number of people who became sick from eating the undercooked hamburger far exceeded the confirmed number of 500 cases. A total of 1.3 million beef patties comprised the implicated shipment and only 272,672, or 20%, were recalled after the outbreak was discovered. In other words, more than 1 million potentially contaminated hamburgers were sold to consumers and distributed throughout the four states where illness occurred.

The CDC says that the actual farm or slaughter plant that was the source of the outbreak will never be known. The report stated that the meat came from animals originating from farms throughout six Western states and from one of six slaughter plants. "No one slaughter plant or farm was identified as the source," the CDC stated.

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials, who operate the nation's meat inspection program, have conceded in recent weeks that inadequate record keeping at slaughter facilities, and elsewhere along the processing chain, is partially to blame for the government's failure to pinpoint the source of contamination.

E. coli 0157:H7 lives in the intestines of otherwise healthy cattle and can contaminate meat during slaughter. The process of grinding beef may transfer pathogens from the surface of the meat to the interior where the bacteria can multiply under proper conditions. The CDC reports that "undercooking of hamburger patties likely played an important role" in the January outbreak.

The article recommends that consumers cook ground beef until the interior is no longer pink, or to at least 155 degrees, and the meat's juices run clear.

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