TOPICS > Health

Recalling Meat Contaminated with E. Coli

August 18, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The E. coli story is our lead tonight. Federal officials ordered the recall last week of 1.2 million pounds of hamburger, one of the largest meat recalls in U.S. history. Kwame Holman begins our coverage with this background report.

KWAME HOLMAN: The suspect beef was traced to a batch of some 5 million frozen quarter-pound patties processed at Hudson Foods and sold to grocery stores and fast food restaurants across the country. Federal officials say patties from that batch were contaminated with the potentially deadly E. coli bacteria.

E. coli can be killed by cooking meat at temperatures of 160 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. The tainted hamburger patties were made in a Hudson plant in Nebraska in early June. Patties made at the same time were distributed to outlets such as Wal-Mart and Burger King. Those chains say the beef they’re now selling is not tainted. All the suspect beef has been removed from store shelves or sold.

Consumers have been warned to check their freezers for Hudson beef patties processed in early June. The contamination was discovered by health officials in Colorado, who traced the illnesses of 16 people to beef patties made by Hudson.

DR. RICHARD HOFFMAN, Epidemiologist: Yes. They had abdominal pain, abdominal cramping. They had bad diarrhea that last several days to a week or more. Some of them had bloody diarrhea, and some of them had low-grade temperature.

KWAME HOLMAN: Hudson Foods says its own inspectors have not detected E. coli problems in more than 50 tests conducted in recent months. Hudson’s Nebraska plant continued operating today with Department of Agriculture inspectors on the scene searching for the source of the E. coli contamination.

JESSE MAJKOWSKI, Department of Agriculture: Our emergency response team is here really to look at production of the product and to identify suppliers and see if we can identify what happened.

KWAME HOLMAN: Hudson has been implicated in a previous recall. In 1995, nearly 4 million pounds of Hudson-processed poultry were recalled when shards of turkey bones were found in it. This is the latest in a series of outbreaks of E. coli-related illness in recent years. In January, 1993, four children died and hundreds of people got sick after eating tainted hamburger at Jack in the Box restaurants in the Pacific Northwest. Last year, E. coli was found in unpasteurized apple juice and was linked to the death of a 16-month-old girl. And earlier this summer food inspectors discovered the bacteria on alfalfa sprouts and said 70 people suffered intestinal illness as a result of eating the sprouts.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Paul Solman takes it from there

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, now for more on E. coli, our food, and the latest on the Hudson hamburger recall, we’re joined by Thomas Billy, head of food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Michael Osterholm, state epidemiologist for Minnesota. Welcome to you both. Mr. Billy, have you pinpointed the source of the new outbreak yet?

THOMAS BILLY, Department of Agriculture: We haven’t yet. Our team is reviewing all the records at the plant in Nebraska to determine what the possible sources were. It includes reviewing the raw material that was used to produce the frozen hamburger product, as well as–

PAUL SOLMAN: The meat, itself, you mean?

THOMAS BILLY: We’re look at the records to find out where their raw material came from. We’re also look at the records that indicate what was going on in the plant during those days when that product was produced that’s now been recalled.

PAUL SOLMAN: What’s the extent of the outbreak so far in terms of human response to it or infection?

THOMAS BILLY: Well, so far, due to the good work of the Colorado Department of Health, they were able to determine that there were 16 cases that were associated with this product. And those sixteen cases–five of which are very serious, the people were hospitalized–led us to trigger the recall of what is now 1.2 million pounds of product from the plant.

PAUL SOLMAN: And, Mr. Billy, any patties still on the shelf?

THOMAS BILLY: Our current information indicates that all of the product has been removed from the retail level. Our remaining concern is the possibility that consumers may have product in their freezers at home. It is for that reason we have encouraged people to check their freezers. If they have product from Hudson Foods, this would be frozen, pre-formed hamburger patties, they should check the codes. If the codes match with what’s been recalled, they should return the product to the retailer. If they’re not sure about the code, then they should call our hotline, and we’ll provide them the information they need.

PAUL SOLMAN: And presumably in the newspapers too these codes have been published, have they not?

THOMAS BILLY: They’ve been published in newspapers, on all the networks, widely communicated.

PAUL SOLMAN: Okay. Mr. Osterholm, what is this bacterium exactly, and why is it so worrisome? I mean, don’t we have zillions of E. coli in our own intestines?

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM, Minnesota Department of Public Health: (St. Paul) There are a number of different types of E. coli bacteria that cause things like traveler’s diarrhea, other kind of exotic diarrhea illnesses. This particular one, however, causes a very bloody type of diarrhea in many individuals and in itself it’s not that serious of a disease. It may appear to be serious at first with the severe abdominal cramping and blood, but most people recover. The problem is that there’s a small percentage–particularly of children and of elderly–as was noted in the stories earlier, that go on and develop a condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS.

PAUL SOLMAN: What percentage of people develop this?

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: In our studies in Minnesota actually, which have been some of the more definitive ones, about 3 percent of children that develop E. coli infection will develop mild to very severe HUS. We’re not quite as certain on the adult side, on the elderly side, but we think probably a similar type of number. This condition can be life-threatening and is the one that really concerns us and makes E. coli 015787 such a difficult organism to deal with.

PAUL SOLMAN: So this is one kind of lots of different E. coli, is that the point?

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: Right. There are many different types of E. coli, many of which are good ones. This is one particular one that produces a toxin or a poison. Our concern is that there may be new E. coli organisms developing the same capacity to produce toxin or poisons that, in fact, will come on the market. And we’re monitoring that very closely. But right now we’re concentrating on 015787.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, since it’s a bacterium, wouldn’t you take antibiotics for this or something? I mean, aren’t there easy ways to kill it?

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: Actually, believe it or not, this is a point of great concern and some controversy. There are some data which suggest that if you actually take antibiotics during your clinical disease, you increase the risk of developing the severe outcome because you may very quickly kill the bacteria, lice it, or break it open, and let the toxin spill out into the blood. Other studies suggest that actually taking the antibiotics reduces the risk. So right now in terms of the science world we’re in a conundrum to figure out exactly what to do. So we don’t know whether to advice to take antibiotics or not. And those are the kinds of studies that are ongoing right now as we speak.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, Mr. Hudson–Mr. Billy–you’re not Mr. Hudson–Hudson Foods now, this is the second major recall–and as I read it–in the clips today–this is the two largest meat recalls in history, plus there’s OSHA, the Occupational Safety & Health violations pending against the company, or have actually been followed through on. What’s the problem with Hudson Foods?

THOMAS BILLY: Well, I think to be fair, the earlier recall involving the turkey product was at a different plant. It involved bone fragments that–due to a malfunctioning machine in producing that product; we did successfully recall that product from the marketplace.

PAUL SOLMAN: And that wasn’t danger anyway–it was bits of turkey bone–

THOMAS BILLY: It wasn’t life-threatening, that’s correct, but it was product that was not consistent with our regulatory requirements. In this instance we clearly have a situation–as Mike has outlined–where it’s possible that there could be very serious illness and even death. So we wanted to make sure we removed from the marketplace all of the product that potentially was associated with the cases that were identified in Colorado.

And so the 1.2 million pounds actually represents three days of production. And we think that with those three days removed, we’ve removed the biggest threat. Now, our job is to find out what may have happened in the plant, or perhaps in their suppliers’ plants, so we can figure out the cause of this and take corrective action, perhaps make some changes in their control program, or in their suppliers’ control programs.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: An important point to add in here–

PAUL SOLMAN: Please, Mr. Osterholm.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: I think it really is critical, is that each year we estimate that there are over 20,000 cases of E. coli 015787 infection in the United States. Most of them go unrecognized. Very few of those actually are ever involved in outbreaks like this. And I think that those of us in the public health community applaud Mr. Billy and what the Food Safety Inspection Service has done over the past several years to heighten the hygiene and the safety standards in meat packing plants.

But I think the media has done a disservice to consumers out there across the board by–keep honing in on the fact–is this problem here–if you fix it or solve it or figure out why, you’ve taken away the problem with E. coli 015787. In Minnesota, which has one of the highest rates in the country of this disease, and we believe not because we necessarily have more of it, but because our programs actively find it–we’ll tell you right now that we haven’t had any of these large outbreaks.

We were not involved with the Jack in the Box outbreak. We do not have any cases associated with this outbreak. Rather, today you have to look at all of the red meat supply as potentially contaminated. And that’s not because somebody at the federal level is falling down in their job. This is a bug that while we can take some of it out, maybe most of it out of the system by better inspection services, by better hygiene, it’s still going to be there.

The ultimate solution to this problem is still going to come back to the consumer of cooking your red hamburger adequately, making certain that there is no red meat left. And if you have the luxury of actually having a thermometer–which has been recently recommended to get to 160–you can do that, although we question how effective that’s going to be. Today, for a parent to feed their child an under-cooked red piece of hamburger in this country, while still wholesome, still may contain E. coli.

And that, to me, is equivalent to driving down a road at 90 miles an hour with your child in the front seat, not in a seatbelt, running red lights. We have got to get consumers to understand that they’re the ones that ultimately have to be responsible for this. And, again, we applaud the FSIS, and what they’re doing right now, but please don’t leave consumers with the idea that if this problem’s taken care of, go ahead, eat your meat as however you will.

Every day you have to be concerned about this. And to say that for Wal-mart or any of those other organizations that all the tainted meat is off the shelf, there is no way they can say that. For all we know there is an outbreak happening as we speak. It’s just the cases will not become apparent until next week or the week after.

PAUL SOLMAN: All right. First, we have the hotline up here now. So, that’s 1-800-535-4555. So that’s the first thing you can do. But, Mr. Osterholm, when you’re talking about what we, consumers, can do, I assume it’s more than just calling the hotline, obviously, from what you just said. What is it that we should be doing? I mean, do fast food restaurants, for example, cook the meat better than we do?

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: Well, I could actually tell you today that I think that most fast food restaurants do. After the Jack in the Box incident there was a great deal of effort made by a number of corporations in this country to assure that hamburgers were adequately cooked. In fact, a great deal of research went into that, how to best cook them and make sure that the taste and flavor and texture stays the same. I think today–generally speaking–probably one of the safest places you can eat a hamburger today is at a fast food restaurant.

PAUL SOLMAN: Okay. But what should I be doing? What should our viewers be doing at home to prevent this from happening inadvertently? I guess it’s always inadvertently–

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: Cooking their hamburgers adequately so that there is no red inside. And, again–

PAUL SOLMAN: No rare hamburgers anymore?

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: No. We have said that for years because of issues around salmonella bacteria, et cetera. And that’s not to say that hamburgers shouldn’t be cooked–or shouldn’t be eaten. We just say make sure you cook it.

PAUL SOLMAN: Yes. But it’s also in alfalfa sprouts. We’re running out of time, but I just want people to know what other things they should be doing.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: Right. Now, that’s a whole different area. If you want to get off into produce or other products, clearly E. coli is also there, but focusing on the red meat, I think we’ve left too many people with the idea that if the government is on top of the job, they’ll make sure no E. coli-tainted meat comes through the system. And what we’re saying is that a great deal can be done to reduce that risk, but it still will never be zero. And I think that we have to get off the mark- what went wrong here in the way that why did somebody screw up–and I think that there may be some answers to this, but the bottom line is every day, in and out, regardless of where that hamburger comes from, cook it, or else you run the risk of E. coli infection.

PAUL SOLMAN: Okay. Well, gentlemen, that’s all the time we have. We could have lots more to talk about here. Thank you both very much. I appreciate it.