Tri-tip beef served at a September 6 fundraiser for the Forest Ranch, CA volunteer fire department has been cited as the probable cause of an outbreak of toxic E. coli O157:H7. At least 18 have fallen ill, four of whom required hospitalization. Many meat-related E. coli outbreaks are traced back to ground beef, but the fundraiser served tri-tip, which has its own, lesser known, history of problems.
“Meat can become contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 in many ways,” said Denis Stearns, attorney with the food borne illness firm Marler Clark. “There are some regulations in place to detect that contamination and prevent tainted meat from reaching the marketplace, but tri-tip beef can fall through a dangerous regulatory loophole. Larger cuts of meat like tri-tips are sold as ‘intact meat’ even though they are intended to be cut into smaller pieces (like steaks or stew meat). The meat industry claims that the USDA allows it to sell contaminated intact cuts of meat, but the Sizzler case illustrates E. coli O157:H7 regulations on intact meat are ill-defined, and that’s a recipe for contamination. It makes no sense.”
The outbreak at Wisconsin Sizzler restaurants in 2000 sickened dozens and caused the death of a three-year-old child. Investigations lead to E. coli-tainted meat at two restaurants. The victims were found to have been made ill by cross-contamination—by eating foods that had been contaminated by contact with the contaminated tri-tips that the restaurant had cut into steaks and needle-tenderized. The case was landmark because the meat company who supplied Sizzler fought all the way to the Supreme Court to prove that they had met USDA regulations; in other words, to prove that USDA regulations allowed them to sell contaminated tri-tips. They lost the suit, but the USDA policies were not clarified.
“Needle-tenderizing meat is not in itself an unsafe practice,” continued Stearns. “But it sure can be if you’re starting off with intact cuts contaminated with a deadly pathogen like E. coli O157:H7. Basically, tenderizer is injected into the meat muscle. If there is E. coli on the surface, the needle can carry it inside, where only heat pasteurization can kill it. Even if the surface of the meat is cleansed, that meat is still like a Trojan horse—an apparently harmless vehicle carrying deadly bacteria into personal and commercial kitchens. And according to the meat industry, it’s legal. We don’t yet know how the beef in this outbreak was contaminated—we may never know. But we do know that the both the meat industry and the USDA need reform, because only clearer, stricter regulations and better oversight can prevent these tragic illnesses.”