E. coli's Comeback: What's Up With That?

Beginning with the Jack in the Box case in 1993, I have focused my attention on food borne illness litigation. A great deal of my work has been with victims of E. coli O157:H7 (E. coli). In fact, between 1993 and 2002 nearly all my cases were E. coli tied to hamburger consumption. Then new regulatory structures began to pay off, and many thought that E. coli in beef had been brought under control. By 2006, federal recalls involved just 181,000 pounds of meat, down from 23 million pounds in 2002. According to the CDC, E. coli illnesses were down, and I had fewer and fewer E. coli clients from meat.

Then something happened; starting in the spring of 2007, there was an explosion of bad beef. In the last 15 months, nearly 40 million pounds of beef contaminated with E. coli has been recalled. That’s nearly twenty thousand tons! Hundreds were sickened and I am back in the beef business. All this after five years of marked decline in E. coli outbreaks. What’s going on? What’s changed out there?

There are as many theories as there are authorities, researchers, and meat packers. Over the past couple of months, I have talked to a number of them, and theories abound. Here are a few:

Complacency: After the dramatic drop in the presence of E. coli in meat, it’s possible that meat processors consciously or unconsciously slacked off, relaxing their testing procedures so that they were less likely to detect tainted meat. If that’s the case, then the recent outbreaks—which led to the bankruptcy of two major meat-processing companies—should serve as a harsh reminder to the food industry that complacency does not pay.

Better Reporting: Perhaps more doctors recognize and test for E. coli. This may be a factor, but the effects of improved reporting would be gradual. I think that this year’s increase in outbreaks and recalls is far too dramatic and sudden to be explained by a statistical quirk.

Global Warming: Too dry? One theory has it that drought in much of the southeast and southwest has led to more fecal dust wafting into beef-slaughtering plants, creating new avenues for beef to become tainted. Too wet? This theory focuses on excessive rainfall in other regions. Muddy pens at meat-processing plants are ideal vehicles for E. coli.

High oil prices: They get blamed for everything else, so why not food poisoning? The theory is that $5 gas has fueled the growth of ethanol plants. Those plants tend to be built next to feedlots, because the plants produce a byproduct called distiller’s grains, which serves as an inexpensive feed for livestock. Problem is, there is conflicting research on whether or not feeding distiller’s grain to beef cattle increases E. coli O157:H7 in their gut.

Illegal Immigration/Deportation: The New York Times reported that immigration officials began a crackdown at slaughterhouses across the country last fall. Some facilities are now hiring men from homeless missions. Hmmm, an influx of unskilled (albeit American) workers, with no experience and high turnover.

The Darwinian explanation: Another theory has it that previous interventions – from Jack in the Box to Odwalla and ConAgra – have forced the E. coli microbe to adapt, selecting pathogens that are more resistant to detection or intervention.

In short, no one yet really knows why my firm is so busy. Cows have not changed. Feedlots have not changed. Slaughterhouses have not changed. Inspections and government regulations have not changed. Supermarkets have not changed. All that has changed is that kids are getting sick again. And that has to change.