The Oregon Department of Human Services relayed an alert to consumers yesterday, 30 August, advising them to discard ground beef linked to Northwest E. coli O157:H7 infections after 8 people in Oregon and Washington have been confirmed as infected after eating it. Other American states may also be affected. The alert was issued earlier in the day by the US Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

The two organic products believed to be contaminated were sold in Northwest food stores during late July and early August.

The stores where the products were sold include: QFC, Fred Meyer, and Safeway stores located in Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Idaho. The natural product is thought to have been sold at Safeway stores in Oregon and Washington and maybe other places too. The meat was ground by Interstate Meat Dist., Inc. based in Clackamas, Oregon.

Senior epidemiologist at the Oregon Public Health Division’s communicable disease section, Dr. William E. Keene said:

“If you have any low-fat hamburger in your freezer, check the label for the brand name and the SELL BY date. If it meets the description, be safe and throw it out.”

The two ground beef products thought to be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 are in 16 ounce black trays carrying the establishment code “Est 965” inside the USDA mark of inspection and they have a sell by date between 1st August and 11th August 2007.

The two products are:

  • “Northwest Finest” brand Natural Ground Beef, 7 per cent fat. The label is red and black and shows a universal product code (UPC) of 7 52907 60012 7.
  • “Northwest Finest” brand Organic Ground Beef, 10 per cent fat. The label is green and black and has no UPC code.

Keene said the first eight confirmed cases of E. coli O157:H7 were in six separate households, one in Oregon and five in Washington.

“Our investigation revealed that these households had purchased ground beef from the same source at grocery stores in Oregon and Washington,” he added.

Other household members also became ill. The infection can spread from person to person. Two of the infected people in Washington had to go to hospital and have both since recovered.

E coli is a common beneficial inhabitant of the intestines in all animals, including humans. It suppresses the growth of harmful bacteria and it helps to produce a large amount of essential vitamins. However, some strains of E. coli cause illness, each in a different way.

E. coli serotype O157:H7 is a rare strain that makes large amounts of toxins that damage the lining of the intestine, sometimes quite badly. The result is an acute condition called “hemorrhagic colitis” (literally inflamed intestine accompanied by blood loss).

The symptoms can be mild to severe and include painful abdominal cramps and diarrhea which is watery at first but then becomes very bloody. Vomiting also happens occasionally and fever is either absent or quite low. Usually self-limiting the illness lasts for about 8 days. Some infected people only get the watery stage of diarrhea.

The very young, the elderly, and those with weak immune systems are most vulnerable. The kidneys can become damaged by the toxins.

Keene said that consumers should always take care when handling uncooked meat and poultry at all times, not just when outbreaks like this one occur. You should always handle and cook meat as if it is contaminated, just to be safe.

With Labor Day weekend coming up, he said perhaps now is an appropriate time to remind consumers of how to handle and cook meat safely:

  • Keep raw and cooked food away from each other. For instance, when cooking burgers don’t put the cooked ones back on the same plate as the uncooked ones. Use a separate, clean plate.
  • Thoroughly clean utensils and surfaces after using them to prepare raw meat.
  • Don’t let meat juice drip onto other foods or surfaces, for instance in the refrigerator. Put the raw meat package in a leak proof container before placing it in the refrigerator incase the package leaks (for instance when defrosting meat).
  • Always wash your hands well with soap after handling raw meat, before eating, after going to the toilet, and after changing diapers.
  • Cook ground beef thoroughly; using a thermometer is the safest bet, if you don’t have one, get one. Make sure the temperature inside the meat is at least 160 degrees F (71 degrees C). Make sure the juice runs clear and none of the meat is still pink when you have cooked it.

Click here for Oregon Department of Human Services.

Click here for more information about Escherichia coli O157:H7 (FDA).

Written by: Catharine Paddock