The first known U.S. outbreak linked to a rare strain of E. coli in ground beef is prompting a fresh look at tougher regulations to protect the nation's meat supply.
Three people in Maine and New York became ill this summer after eating ground beef traced back to a Cargill plant in Wyalusing, Pa. Wichita-based Cargill Meat Solutions, a subsidiary of Minneapolis-based Cargill, recalled about 8,500 pounds of ground beef on Saturday, and regulators warned consumers to throw out frozen meat purchased at BJ's Wholesale Clubs in eight eastern states. The ground beef had a use-by-or-freeze-by date of July 1.
Elisabeth Hagen, who was appointed undersecretary of food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture nine days before the recall, has signaled interest in expanding federal oversight of meat beyond the most prevalent strain of E. coli.
"In order to best prevent illnesses and deaths from dangerous E. coli in beef, our policies need to evolve to address a broader range of these pathogens," Hagen said in a statement.
The New York Times first reported the USDA interest in federal oversight of other strains of E. coli following the Cargill recall.
The federal government currently requires meat plants to test for the most virulent strain of E. coli, O157:H7, which causes an estimated 70,000 illnesses a year. They don't have to test for six other less common strains of E. coli, including the O26 version that sickened those involved the Cargill recall.
Industry officials said tests aren't widely available to detect the other strains of E. coli.
They also said more testing isn't the most effective way to keep meat safe. Patrick Boyle, who heads the American Meat Institute, warned Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a letter last month that more testing would cause "more harm than good" by imposing new costs and diverting attention from efforts to prevent toxins from getting into the food supply.
"Testing doesn't make food safe in and of itself. You have to have some preventive measures in place," said James Hodges, the trade group's executive vice president.
Cargill Meat Solutions spokesman Mike Martin said Friday that the latest outbreak shows the need to keep searching for solutions to reduce the potential health risks. He said Cargill worked with disease investigators to trace the outbreak and voluntarily recalled the product. He added that none of the three people who became sick were hospitalized.
"Certainly I think we need to take a fresh look at this because of the apparent linkage of O26 to beef," Martin said.
Hundreds of varieties of E. coli live naturally in the intestines of cattle and other animals without making them sick. For people, symptoms of E. coli infection include bloody diarrhea, dehydration and in severe cases, kidney failure.
Consumers can avoid getting infected from tainted meat by cooking it thoroughly and using a meat thermometer to make sure it reaches an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees.