Imagine a ton of freshly ground beef. The company in charge of processing this meat finds out during a routine test that it is contaminated with E. coli. They record the test results, which are read by a government inspector, who acknowledges that the meat is indeed tainted.
You might think that this beef would be headed straight for the garbage bin. But in many cases, this meat is instead cooked, prepared and packaged as a pre-cooked hamburger patty that you pick up from the grocery store. And it's all completely legal.
The issue of cooking and reselling formerly tainted beef comes to light as another E. coli scare has now spread to 11 states, although the meat in this new case was fresh ground beef, not pre-cooked meat that had been repackaged.
Health officials say at least 11 states now have reported illness from a batch of E. coli tainted fresh ground beef released to market nearly two months ago.
With the ongoing repackaging practice from previously contaminated meat and the new E. coli scare, it's understandable that some consumers may be more than a bit wary of the meat that hits their plates.
But while the wave of illness could indicate a need for greater efforts to catch bad beef before it gets to consumers, many may not be aware that thanks to a U.S. Department of Agriculture regulation, at least some of the meat they eat may have tested positive for E. coli contamination at one time – and been sold to them anyway after processing.
ABC News Senior Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser discussed this issue with ABC News' Chris Cuomo on Monday's "Good Morning America". Besser noted that even if E. coli contamination is confirmed in a particular batch of meat, "[the company] can cook that meat and sell it in another product."
Janet Riley, spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute, confirmed that such a government allowance exists, though she noted that such meat can only be released to the public if it is made safe through cooking or some other processing that kills the germs.
"Companies can divert it into a cooked product, such as a processed product, like cooked taco meat or something else where we have absolutely documented that it has reached the proper temperature," Riley said. "This is allowed under USDA protocol."
Caleb Weaver, press secretary for the USDA, confirmed that these practices are allowed.
"If the establishment finds a positive ground beef sample, they can implement steps to ensure the meat is safe to eat through proper cooking, and [the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service] inspection program personnel verify that steps are taken to ensure that the meat is safe," he said. "These steps would include delivering a full lethality treatment to positive product, and verifying, as a critical control point, that this lethality is met. The product is then safe to eat."
Dr. Ira Breite, assistant clinical professor of gastroenterology at the New York University Langone Medical Center, agreed that tainted meat is indeed safe to eat if it is properly cooked to decontaminate it. But he added that many consumers would not relish the idea of eating meat that had been considered tainted with E. coli at any point along its way to their tables.
"If something is coated with E. coli and you cook it, the E. coli is gone," Breite said. "So could you eat it? Yes. Would I want to eat it? No. Is it gross? Yes... It's the ick factor."
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.
According to the CDC, as of Tuesday evening, a total of 26 people from 11 states had been sickened. The states affected include California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont. Sixteen patients are reported to have been hospitalized, and two deaths have been reported.
How Consumers Can Protect Themselves From E. Coli
While the current outbreak may have many wary of ground beef now on shelves, Schafer pointed out that none of the beef associated with the recall would still be on the shelf at this time.
"The recalled products have passed their expiration dates by 23 to 32 days," she said. "If [the product] does exist, it would be in your freezer."
She added that at least on Fairbank Farms' side, any tainted meat that is found is not processed and repackaged. "It gets thrown away; it gets disposed of."
And despite the fact that contaminated meat is completely safe if cooked properly, Breite said that anyone who suspects that they may have tainted meat in their home has really only one completely safe option.
"You toss it," he said. "You toss it immediately."