William Marler, whose law firm specializes in food-borne illness, said he's tried to get the federal government to change its rule but to no avail.
Marler said he tracks outbreaks of E. coli and similar illnesses around the nation and has kept an eye on the situation in Forest Ranch, where 27 people became ill after eating food at a Sept. 6 fundraiser for the volunteer fire department. All signs point to tri-tip served at the event as causing the illness, according to the Butte County Public Health Department.
E. coli bacteria is all around and most of it's harmless, Marler said in a phone interview. However, a strain that appeared a number of years ago, E. coli 0157:H7, can be deadly.
Found in the intestines and feces of cattle, this bacteria can contaminate meat, he said.
After a major outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 in the early 1990s, the federal government moved to regulate the meat industry but only partially succeeded, he said. A compromise was made, involving the "intact cut of meat rule."
According to this rule, he said, hamburger can't be sold if it contains E. coli 0157:H7. But so-called "intact cuts" of meat, such as tri-tip, can be sold containing the bacteria. The rationale for the rule is that hamburger will be squeezed into patties, and contaminated meat on the outside might end up in the middle of the burger, where it might not be cooked long enough to kill any bacteria. But with solid meat, the thinking goes, any bacteria will remain on the outside and definitely be killed in cooking.
In fact, things don't work that way, Marler said, because some intact cuts get contaminated by being tenderized with needles, and some solid meat is turned into hamburger after it leaves the packing plant.
Marler said this policy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture is "indefensible" and must be changed. But change seems unlikely because the beef industry's lobby is so powerful, he added. Shannon Kelley, a spokesperson for the California Beef Council, said her industry has many safeguards at the production level and promotes cooking guidelines to ensure safety. Unfortunately, consumers don't always follow the guidelines, she said.
Dr. Mark Lundberg, Butte County health officer, said he hoped to have final results this week of lab tests on human specimens and on leftover food from the Forest Ranch event.
Four of the 27 victims of the outbreak got so sick they were hospitalized. A young girl who was flown to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento for treatment, is now back at home, he said.