If you like ground beef, you may have a beef with this announcement. Or maybe you don’t want to have a beef, depending on what you prefer. On Friday, the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC) announced that ground beef is now the suspected cause of the Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (E. coli) O103 outbreak.
This is the ongoing outbreak that I wrote about for Forbes last week. Since then, the number of reported cases has gone up to 109 (from 72). The number of states affected has increased from 5 to 6 with Indiana being added to the mix. And the number of hospitalizations has more than doubled from 8 to 17. Fortunately, no deaths have occurred to date.
The CDC didn’t just hit the ground running with suspecting ground beef. Instead, investigators interviewed people who have gotten ill, asking them about what they had come into contact with and eaten the week before symptoms had begun. They then compared the answers with results from previous surveys of the general population, trying to determine what may have been different about the people who had gotten Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) O103 infections. One thing stood out: of the 75 interviewed, 63 (84%) had reported eating ground beef in the week prior. That’s usually high. Compare the 84% to the 39.8% of the population sample for the 2006-2007 FoodNet Population Survey who reported eating ground beef in the previous seven days .
Investigators are also conducting traceback investigations. This involves walking backwards to see where the suspected food items may have come from to determine if there is a common source. The investigators are asking the people who got sick where they ate or purchased their ground beef. Then they are asking these restaurants and stores about who supplied their ground beef. And so forth. Basically, the investigators are traveling backwards through the supply chain that got the beef from farms to plates of people, testing samples where relevant along the way. So far, these traceback investigations have not yielded a common source. But such investigations take time, especially when personnel and resources are limited.
So far, the CDC has not told anyone to completely avoid ground beef. For now, just be careful with ground beef, wherever you got it from, and use standard precautions. Wash thy hands thoroughly and frequently when you touch raw ground beef. The same applies to anything else that touches raw ground beef. If you don’t normally do these things at all times, please do not throw any dinner parties ever.
Of course, this is not the time to try ground beef sushi or sashimi. Make sure that you thoroughly cook any ground beef before eating it, heating it to at least 160°F, the temperature needed to kill E. coli. Use a thermometer, because unless you are a thermometer, you can’t tell whether the inside of the beef has reached that temperature. You’ve heard of the saying that you can’t tell a book by its cover? Well, you can’t really tell a beef temperature by its color. Beef turning brown alone does not mean that the temperature to kill E. coli has been achieved. Move the thermometer around, since all parts of the ground beef need to reach that temperature to ensure that no living STEC remains.
Also, if you don’t store raw beef properly, you will be in store for a lot more bacteria. When you buy raw ground beef, make sure that you refrigerate or freeze it within two hours. Don’t go watch Captain Marvel in the movie theater first. If you aren’t going to use the ground beef for a while, freeze it. Don’t keep raw ground beef in the refrigerator for longer than 2 days. Until you are ready to cook the raw ground beef, keep it in either refrigerator or freezer at all times. There should be no reason to leave raw ground beef at room temperature for any length of time. If you need something to cuddle with, use a blanket or cooked ground beef instead. You can thaw frozen raw ground beef in the refrigerator.
When you eat at a restaurant, it is a little harder to stick your thermometer into the beef while it is cooking. The chef may tell you to go stick your thermometer somewhere else, and doing so may not be very pleasant. An alternative is to ask whomever is taking your order to confirm that all ground beef will be cooked to internal temperatures of at least 160°F. Don’t be bashful about making such inquiries. Be suspicious of any food establishment that makes light of any food safety concerns. Run away from any place that pushes back on your request, otherwise you may get the runs or worse. (OK, maybe you should walk away rather than run away.)
The CDC and other public health officials remain on the ground, so to speak, to better understand and contain this outbreak. Beef on the lookout for any updates.