E. coli scare this summer caused largest beef reca

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    By CAMERON FULLER and RAY HAMMOND

    The largest recall of beef in America’s history took place this summer when Hudson Foods recalled 25 million pounds of beef fearing the meat had been tainted with the dangerous E. coli bacteria.

    According to information posted on the USDA’s Internet site, there has been 23 recalls issued by the FDA this year alone. Meats such as chicken, turkey and sausage were recalled.

    The smallest recall consisted of bacteria infected ground beef found at the Great Value Supermarket in Emporia, Va., — only 70 pounds. The Hudson Foods callback was over 24 million more pounds than the next largest callback.

    Although not all of the recalls were made because of detection of the E. coli bacteria, special attention has been given to the bacteria because of the unpleasant and potentially dangerous effects the bacteria can cause.

    Effects of the disease include bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps and kidney failure among small children. E. coli comes in many different strains some of which are harmless. The strain related to ground beef is known as Escherichia coli 0157:H7 and is first developed in the intestines of animals.

    State and county health experts say they are doing the best they can to ensure the public’s safety. Epidemiologist Gerrie Dowdle of the Utah Department of Health said that Utah has not experienced any significant outbreaks of disease on a public scale yet this year.

    Dowdle said consumers are ultimately responsible for eating healthy and they should just assume their food is contaminated. They must clean their workplaces, wash their hands, and thoroughly cook their food, she said.

    “We certainly cannot guarantee each step of the process of when you purchase food to when it is served on your table,” Dowdle said.

    Utah County Health Department’s efforts are extensive. The county’s Bureau Director of Environmental Health, Dave Johnson, said the department must license, inspect, follow up, and hold hearings on restaurants and supermarkets to determine if they are meeting safety guidelines.

    He said the businesses are aware of the guidelines from the day they begin and know that the department will walk in unannounced. Johnson hopes people will report instances of food-borne disease.

    “We try and get people to call the health department so we can see if there are other people reporting it. A lot of people say “Well, I’m not going to bother, I don’t want to do anything to the place,” Johnson said. “Well, we’re not necessarily going to do anything to the place but if we get the numbers, it kind of shows a trend. And if people don’t call us, we simply don’t know what’s gone on.”.

    Supermarket meat departments around Provo are cautious as to which meats go where and how they are cut, stored, and ground. According to Arlene Anaraki, an employee at the Albertson’s meat department, health standards didn’t used to be as stringent as they are now.

    “Years ago, we never wore gloves because meat was meat and that was that,” Anaraki said.

    But in light of rising health concerns and product call-backs, there are standards for every aspect of commercial meat handling. The image of frozen carcasses hanging from meat hooks wouldn’t apply to most supermarket meat departments today.

    “Ninety-five percent of the meat we have arrives fresh and not frozen,” said Anaraki.

    Still, low temperatures are necessary to keep bacteria away when storing meat. Albertson’s’ “cutting rooms” are maintained at a temperature between 40 and 45 degrees.

    “It’s colder than heck back there,” Anaraki said of the cooler she works in. “I’ve worked places where you could adjust the temperature, but nowadays it’s stuck and you can’t change it (the temperature). But that’s good for the meat.”

    Due to the danger of cross-contamination, Albertson’s’ meat department designates a table for each type of meat. According to Anaraki, beef, pork and chicken are all cut and prepared on different tables to minimize risk.

    When handling meats, gloves are a must to prevent contamination from bare hands, Anaraki said. Gloves aren’t changed day-to-day but rather job-to-job to eliminate the possibility of bacteria spreading from one piece of meat to the other. Wearing the same gloves all day as a means of economizing is a thing of the past, she said.

    Dowdle said ground beef is a prime host for the E. coli bacteria because of the way it is prepared.

    “E. coli gets ground in to the ground beef,” Dowdle said. “It’s not as much as a problem with other kinds of beef like steaks and roasts because you cook the outside of it and the organism hasn’t been introduced to the inside. Ground beef is different.”

    Gerald Thompson at the Provo Ream’s meat department said cleanliness is the answer on how to best avoid meat contamination.

    “Cleaning the grinders every night is the key factor in keeping bacteria away,” Thompson said.

    State inspectors come to Reams at least every six months to inspect the bacteria levels in the ground beef. According to Thompson, keeping equipment clean has kept the Reams’ meat department track record clean as well.

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