Woman's Severe Infection Raises E. Coli Fears

How to buy, store and cook meat to help prevent illnesses.

ByKate Mccarthy via via logo
October 05, 2009, 9:52 PM

Oct. 6, 2009— -- Stephanie Smith suddenly fell ill in 2007, but she believed it was only a stomach virus.

"I just kept getting sicker and sicker, and my boyfriend at the time brought me to the hospital," Smith said of her ordeal, which was reported Sunday in The New York Times.

Her stomach pain turned to seizures and convulsions, and doctors put her into a nine-week coma. When she woke up, Smith, 22, a children's dance instructor, was paralyzed from the waist down.

She had a severe food-borne illness caused by E. coli and said it was traced back to a frozen, prepackaged hamburger her mother had grilled for dinner.

"I'll tell you, it has been really tough to accept the fact that I did cook the hamburger, that I was there," Sharon Smith, Stephanie's mother, told ABC News. "I don't think I could let go of it. It's so hard to see your children suffer."

Smith's reaction was particularly severe, but there are ways to help avoid contaminated hamburger meat in the first place, Dr. Richard Besser said on "Good Morning America" this morning.

One thing most consumers don't realize, Besser said, is that when they purchase ground beef, the meat may come from thousands of different cows, any of which could be infected with E. coli bacteria. The meat Smith ate was from three different cows.

To reduce their chances of contact with tainted meat, Besser said, consumers should buy beef that comes from a single cow or go to a butcher and ask the butcher to grind up a single piece of meat.

After purchasing ground meat, you can keep it in the refrigerator for three to five days or in the freezer for six to 12 months. But freezing the meat does not mean it's safe, Besser said.

The only way to be fairly certain the meat is safe is to cook it "to the point where most people won't want to eat it," Besser said.

If the meat has been cooked, Besser said you should store it in the refrigerator and eat it within three to four days. Cooked meat will keep for two or three months in the freezer.

Beef Industry, Agriculture Department Respond

In response to Smith's story, Bo Reagan, chairman of the Beef Industry Food Safety Council, released a statement reiterating the industry's commitment to best practices.

"The beef industry pledged to consumers many years ago to produce the safest food possible, and the industry is supporting that commitment through research, development and application of safety interventions and education to ensure it is making continual improvements to the safety of beef," Reagan said in the statement.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack also released a statement that said protecting public health is the sole mission of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, and the agency is "committed to working to reduce the incidence of food-borne illnesses" caused by E. coli.

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