July 19, 2018

E. coli Outbreak Associated with Coco Loco A&M Restaurant in College Station, TX

The E. coli outbreak that has sickened at least five people in Brazos county, Texas has been linked to ground beef served at the Coco Loco restaurant off George Bush Drive in College Station. We don’t know how the ground beef was cooked; if it was served as hamburgers or as part of another dish such as tacos. Officials do not know if improper temperature, improper cooking, or cross-contamination caused the outbreak.

E.coli O157:H7 HUS Outbreak Romaine LettuceThe outbreak seems to be isolated to mid-April 2013. Two young brothers developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) as a result of their illnesses and were hospitalized for a long time.

Ground beef has been linked to many foodborne illness outbreaks in the past several years; E. coli outbreaks are quite common. Why is this food so problematic? The answer lies in how ground beef is made.

When a cow is slaughtered, the intestines often burst, which spreads pathogenic bacteria such as E. coli onto the rest of the animal. Solid cuts of meat, such as steaks and roasts, may be contaminated on the surface, but the interior portion of those cuts is sterile. That’s why solid cuts of meat must be seared before we eat them but a steak cooked to medium doneness is (usually) safe.

Ground beef is usually made from beef trimmings and cheaper cuts of meat that are placed together in a grinder. The muscle is torn and mixed with fat and, unfortunately, the bacteria that are on the surface of the meat. Pathogenic bacteria are then found throughout the ground beef. And when you or a chef at a restaurant cook a hamburger made from that ground beef less than well done, you will be consuming pathogenic bacteria.

The federal government has classified E. coli O157:H7 and six other strains of that bacteria called non-O157 STEC as adulterants. That means it is illegal to sell beef contaminated with those bacteria. But these outbreaks are still occurring. The Farm Rich E. coli O121 outbreak that is still ongoing is just one example.

Until February 8, 2013, the USDA-FSIS did not require companies to hold products that were tested for these dangerous bacteria until the test results were known, so many foods had to be recalled. That policy changed this year. But the new policy only applies to government testing; not to establishment testing. The government still advises all establishments to hold product pending test results.

How can you protect yourself? First, treat all raw meat as if it is contaminated with pathogenic bacteria because most of it is.  Handle it carefully; avoid cross-contamination, cook ground beef (ALL ground beef) to 160 degrees F. as measured by a food thermometer, and wash utensils, countertops, and plates well after they come into contact with raw meat. Never cook or order a burger less than well done. And stay alert to food recalls and outbreak announcements.

 

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