E. coli-tainted Meat Causes Illnesses in Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, S. Dakota, and Washington

On Christmas eve the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued a notice that National Steak and Poultry (NSP) was recalling 248,000 pounds of beef steaks contaminated with the highly virulent pathogen E. coli O157:H7. The steaks were mechanically tenderized “non-intact steaks”, and were shipped to restaurants nationwide. Although the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) working with state health and agriculture departments linked the steaks to NSP while investigating illnesses in restaurants six states—Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, South Dakota, and Washington—a list detailing the distribution of the steaks has not been released by FSIS, CDC or NSP.

“When it involves E. coli O157:H7, just issuing a recall isn’t remotely enough action to protect consumers,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle-based food safety advocate and attorney. “The recall was issued on a holiday, with illnesses across the country and only a vague reference to meat being shipped to restaurants nationwide. The FSIS, CDC and NSP must know which restaurants it went to and the public deserves to know, too.”

Food Safety News reported this morning that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was warned in June 2009 of the risk of “non-intact steaks (blade tenderized prior to further processing),” or mechanically tenderized meat, by a coalition of food safety advocates. Secretary Vilsack was specifically warned that outbreaks associated with mechanically tenderized meat products have been on the rise. Beef products like steaks and roasts that have been tenderized by piercing the surface with small needles or blades contain a risk that any pathogens on the surface of the meat were carried to the interior of the product, where they might not be eliminated when the product is cooked.

“Information on the distribution of these steaks has been withheld to protect whom?” continued Marler. “We need to know who is looking out for the consumer. How will someone know if the restaurant they patronize received the meat or even knows about the recall? How will restaurant management know to return the product and not serve it? This information is available, and getting it out quickly is absolutely critical to public health.”