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

Govt. standards allow previously contaminated meat, if cooked, onto your plate.

ByABC News
November 3, 2009, 4:46 PM

Nov. 4, 2009— -- 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."