August 25, 2019

Lawyer Asks: Why Are There Ground Beef E. coli Outbreaks?

This afternoon, amidst the ongoing ground beef E. coli O103 outbreak affecting much of the east-central United States, I began my weekly meal preparation ritual. I went to the freezer and grabbed two pounds of frozen ground beef, defrosted it, and put it in a frying pan to brown. My family of four goes through so much ground beef that I regularly fill my freezer with a “quarter of beef” raised by my father and processed by a local butcher shop. We live on it.

Why Are There Ground Beef E. coli Outbreaks?

My family’s subsistence on ground beef is not uncommon. For 2018, Americans were projected to eat 222.2 pounds of meat and poultry, each. According to the self-proclaimed “best information source” of the beef industry, “Ground beef is the most widely consumed beef product among American consumers. It is estimated that 40% to 45% of beef consumed is ground beef, and when beef is prepared for meals eaten at home, ground beef is used 60% of the time.”

Why, exactly, ground beef is such a staple of the American diet is not as obvious, but is probably based on a few factors, including its relatively low cost, ease of preparation, and its use in one of the most iconic American foods—the cheeseburger.

When I was in middle school, my home economics class had an entire unit devoted to simple ground beef meals. The teacher, a woman old enough to have taught my own mother the same course (and who was probably the inspiration behind my mother’s frequent admonishment to her daughters to “read the label, set a better table”), was on a personal mission to teach domestic survival skills to a classroom of millennials without much hope.

After learning 8 ways to make eggs (including in the microwave), we were introduced to a myriad of ground beef dishes—chili, spaghetti, tacos, etc.— all starting with basic browned beef. We thawed, browned (“there should be no pink left, kids!”), and drained our beef, before completing the dish. (After we mastered browned beef, we learned how to replace missing buttons. Life skills.)

In my home economics class, there was little discussion of food safety—we didn’t learn was to take the temperature of our ground beef. My experience at home was likewise a bit light on the topic of food safety.

But you can’t see E. coli or other foodborne pathogens — bacteria is microscopic. Even after a stint in the food service industry, I didn’t learn until I began working at a law firm with a niche in food poisoning illness claims that ground beef should be cooked to 160°F. Moreover, color is not a good indicator of temperature. But, like most American consumers, as a young adult, I didn’t know that. Even if I did know it, I certainly didn’t think about it. Most cookbooks and internet recipes don’t provide safe cooking temperatures.

Because of the disconnect between typical cooking and safer food preparation and the real danger posed by E. coli infections, since the 1990s, ground beef (and other “non-intact” cuts of beef) have been subject to additional regulation. After the infamous Jack-in-the-Box outbreak, E. coli O157:H7 — the most common Shiga-toxin producing E. coli — has been considered an “adulterant” of ground beef. In 2012, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) added six other types of E. coli to the official list of “zero-tolerance” adulterants for ground beef—including E. coli O103. (Thanks, Obama.)

With the current ground beef E. coli outbreak, victims shouldn’t feel guilty about their cooking practices. While we should all strive to cook beef to a proper temperature, ground beef simply shouldn’t contain fecal contaminants like Shiga-toxin producing E. coli. In fact, even cooking to proper temperatures may not completely kill E. coli bacteria — meaning that the food is still a hazard to health even when the consumer does everything right.

My browned ground beef this afternoon became taco meat and a Hamburger Helper noodle dish (don’t judge me—my kids love it). I think it’s safe—but since I don’t have a laboratory at my home—like all consumers, I have to rely on beef producers to do the right thing.

Bad Bug Law Team | Pritzker Law Firm

If you or a loved one have been sickened with an E. coli infection after eating ground beef, please contact our experienced attorneys for help at 1-888-377-8900 or 612-338-0202.

Lindsay Lien Rinholen is an attorney with Pritzker Hageman, which underwrites Food Poisoning Bulletin. She has filed lawsuits on behalf of clients sickened with pathogens, including E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria monocytogenes.

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