Food Protection Connection: Ground Beef: Checking Up
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(reprinted from Dietary Manager, March 2010)
Does this headline sound familiar? “Beef Packers, Inc., a Fresno, Calif., establishment, is recalling approximately 22,723 pounds of ground beef products that may be linked to an outbreak of Salmonellosis” (USDA, 12/2/09). Or how about this one? “Fairbury Steaks, Inc. a Fairbury, Neb., establishment, is recalling approximately 90 pounds of fresh ground beef products that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.” (USDA, 11/17/09).
The fact is the ground beef recalls are common news. Some involve small batches, while others are massive. What exactly are the hazards today… and how is the industry doing at limiting contamination?
Pathogens of Note
While E. coli gets a lot of press, it’s not the only pathogen in ground beef. According to the USDA, the most common pathogens in ground beef are E. coli 9157:H7, Campylobacter jejuni, Salmonella species, Listeria monocytogenes, and Staphylococcus aureus.
For example, in the first headline above (12/2/09), the culprit was an antibiotic resistant form of Salmonella called Salmonella Newport. Investigators linked two illnesses reported in Arizona with the fresh ground beef products, noting, “The Salmonella Newport strain was isolated both from the patients and from ground beef produced by [the plant].” Investigators also noted, “This particular strain … is resistant to many commonly prescribed drugs, which can increase the risk of hospitalization or possible treatment failure in infected individuals.” (USDA recall statement)
Grinding is a Hazard
Ground beef poses a hazard inherent in the process itself. This brings to mind POTTWA or FATTOM, either of which is an acronym for factors that encourage growth of pathogens: Potentially hazardous food, presence of Oxygen, Time, Temperature, available Water, and slight Acidity. Grinding meat creates an expanded surface area, where any potential contamination is exposed to oxygen.
The process also spreads bacteria, explains the USDA. Large batch processing means that contamination in a small portion of meat is more likely to spread to greater batches of ground beef in the marketplace.
As part of federal food protection efforts, the USDA Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) conducts routine sampling and testing of meats. In fact, the problem that triggered the recall from a Nebraska plant cited above was discovered through FSIS microbiological sampling. FSIS had received no reports of illnesses, but recommended action based on bacterial test results.
The USDA publishes reports of E. coli testing online (see “More Info” below), so it’s actually easy to find out how our nation’s food protection efforts are performing. For example, in September 2009, 0.59 percent of raw ground beef in retail stores tested positive for E. coli (under 1 percent). Keep in mind that this is from a sampling of 169 stores, and does not represent all stores around the nation. In that report, imported ground beef was showing no E. coli contamination. However, the year before, 5.26 percent of imported ground beef tested positive. (See “Fast Facts” about how much of our meat is imported.)
The USDA tests in meat plants as well. As of January 24, 2010, the USDA reported under a quarter of a percent of samples contained E. coli (0.22 percent). On many of the reports, figures for retail stores run lower than for processing plants. In general, this appears to be good news. The best controls in our food supply chain would catch contamination and intervene before ground beef goes further in the farm-to-fork cycle.
Recognizing the slim chance that ground beef could arrive at your establishment contaminated with foodborne bacteria, what are the best controls you can implement? Here are some ideas.
First of all, ensure that you are purchasing USDA-inspected meat from an approved and reliable vendor who can meet your delivery requirements. Check and observe sell-by dates, and practice stock rotation.
Secondly, control temperature at receiving, in storage, in all phases of the flow of food in your operation. A little-known fact is that E. coli can survive the cold temperatures of refrigeration, and even freezing, according to the USDA. At a temperature as low as 44°F, E. coli in food can multiply, albeit very slowly.
For items like beef patties, keep in mind that a thermometer with a thin probe is an essential tool for verifying endpoint time and temperature standards.. (A bi-metal stem thermometer typically needs three inches of food contact for a reliable reading, so is not a good option for a beef patty.) The USDA also cautions, “Color is NOT a reliable indicator that ground beef or ground beef patties have been cooked to a temperature high enough to kill harmful bacteria such as E. coli O157:H7. The only way to be sure ground beef is cooked to a high enough temperature to kill harmful bacteria is to use a thermometer to measure the internal temperature.”
Finally, given even the slightest possibility of contaminated ground beef, preventing cross contamination in storage and in the kitchen is essential. With beef patties, common forms of cross contamination are:
- Storing raw meat above ready-to-eat food or close to buns and accompaniments in a grill area
- Having an employee touch raw meat and then touch ready-to-eat food
- Having an employee use the same spatula to handle raw and cooked beef patties in a grill area
- Placing cooked patties on a plate that previously held raw patties.
Ground beef safety is an excellent example of how food-safe steps come into play in the entire farm-to-fork chain. Recalls and sampling reports underscore the fact that E. coli contamination in your operation’s food supply is possible. (Remember that even with recall procedures, sometimes foodborne illness is the first step that triggers investigation and product recall.) It’s important to keep the hazard in focus for your team, and continue to follow preventive steps to keep customers safe.
• The United States imports more than $8.5 billion worth of meat, poultry and egg products each year.
• Approximately 6 to 8 percent of meat consumed in the United States comes from outside our borders.
• In 2006, 44 percent of the meat and poultry products imported to the United States came from Canada.
USDA. Ground Beef and Food Safety. www.fsis.usda.gov/fact_sheets/ground_beef_and_food_safety/index.asp
USDA. Testing of Raw Ground Beef: http://origin-www.fsis.usda.gov/Science/Ecoli_Raw_Beef_Testing_Data_YTD/index.asp
by Sue Grossbauer, RD
Sue Grossbauer, RD, is president of The Grossbauer Group and the author of many ANFP publications and online courses. She supports foodservice organizations in areas relating to marketing, education, food safety, and technology.