E. Coli Concern: Once-Tainted Meat Allowed Back Into System

Dr. David Acheson, managing director of food and import safety for the advising and investment firm Leavitt Partners, agreed that modern processing methods are more than enough to ensure that dangerous bacteria does not survive to sicken consumers.

"Often that winds up being a canned product," Acheson said. "When you can something, you really do cook it to death. It is a massive kill."

And what of the "ick factor?"

"On the one hand, you and I may say 'ick' I don't want to eat cooked bacteria," Acheson said. "But on the other hand, we do it all the time."

E. Coli: Gaps in Inspection System?

But Besser said a bigger concern than cooked tainted meat may be lurking in our food supply. He said that while there is a requirement for companies to test for dangerous bacteria in their meat – and there is also a USDA official who is charged with reviewing reports written by these companies that document cases of contamination – there is as yet no requirement for companies to directly report to the USDA any cases of contamination that occur.

"The companies do testing for bacteria, and they don't have to report those results to the USDA who are in their plants," Besser told "GMA's" Cuomo. "If the USDA wants to, they can."

Weaver said that even though direct notification of contaminated meat is not required of the companies, weekly checks of records keep the products safe for consumers.

"While establishments are not required to notify FSIS of their testing results, the plans require the establishments to take action to address the hazards posed by [E. coli] and other foodborne pathogens," he said. "Additionally, establishments must record these test results in their records and FSIS inspection program personnel have access to establishment testing records at any time and review the records weekly."

Still, in the tricky business of meat testing, some public health experts said that more should be done in order to ensure that the meat that shows up on grocery store shelves is as safe as possible.

"If it's done correctly then this is not something to scare consumers about, but from a public health regulatory side, should it be a little tighter? Yeah, I think it should," Acheson said. "It would make a lot of sense for the meat companies to, number one, inform the FDA that they found it; and, number two, explain what they did to correct it."

Cause of Fresh Ground Beef E. Coli Outbreak Has Experts Puzzled

Thus far, the exact cause of the new E. coli outbreak is unknown. While on Oct. 31, 2009, Asheville, N.Y.-based Fairbank Farms issued a voluntary recall of 545,699 pounds of beef products, Agnes Schafer, a spokeswoman for Fairbank Farms, noted that "no ground beef from Fairbank Farms has been positively tested for E. coli.

"Fairbank Farms recalled the product because the USDA determined an association between the product and illness in three states," she said. "There have been no tests to our knowledge to prove an association."

Still, CDC data suggests that the pattern of illnesses may be linked to the company's plant, and at least one sample from an opened package of the company's ground beef recovered from a patient's home was found to have tested positive for the E. coli strain by the Massachusetts Department of Health.

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