What causes E. coli Food Poisoning?

E. coli is a type of bacteria that is found in the intestines of warm-blooded animals. Some strains are not harmful, others can cause serious illness and death. People get E. coli infections when they eat food that is contaminated with fecal matter. This contamination can happen at slaughter or at any point along the supply chain when infected food handlers don’t wash their hands properly.

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Symptoms of an E. coli infection, which include abdominal cramps and diarrhea that can be bloody, usually develop within three days of exposure. Anyone who develops these symptoms should see a doctor and refrain from taking over-the-counter, anti-diarrheal medications as that can increase the risk of life-threatening complications.

Young children are at particular risk of developing a serious complication of E. coli called Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), a form of kidney failure. HUS is fatal in about 12 percent of cases.

How are E. coli Outbreaks Identified?

The U.S. Department of Agricultures’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS) is the government agency that inspects poultry and beef produced in the U.S. to make sure it is safe to eat.

One duty of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is to detect and investigate illnesses linked to contaminated food. When someone gets an E. coli infection, genetic tests are performed on the bacteria cultures from their stool samples to identify the E. coli strain’s genetic “fingerprint.”

The CDC uploads these fingerprints into a national subtyping database called PulseNet.  When matches appear, it indicates that people were sickened by the same food product. When two or more people are sickened by the same food it is considered an outbreak.

The CDC works in collaboration with state health departments to gather information about the people who got sick. How old are they? What counties do they live in? When did they first get symptoms? Outbreak case-patients are then interviewed about the foods they ate before they became ill and where they purchased the food.

If the common food exposure is beef or poultry, USDA FSIS conducts a “traceback” investigation to trace the contaminated food back to its source, the farm to fork journey in reverse. When the producer of the food is identified, environmental samples from the facility where it was produced are collected for testing. Products are also tested.

If E. coli is found in a product and the fingerprint of the strain from the product matches the fingerprint of the strain cultured from patients, that is evidence that links the product to the outbreak.

ground beef packages

E. coli Outbreaks Linked to Beef Products

Since 2006, there have been a number of multistate E. coli outbreaks linked to ground beef and other beef products. Below is a brief summary of each.

2019 Ground Beef E. coli Outbreak

E. coli O103 Outbreak

An ongoing ground beef E. coli O103 outbreak has sickened 109 people in six states, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Ohio, Georgia and Indiana. Seventeen people have been hospitalized. The case-patients range in age from 1 year to 83 years old, half of them are under 18.  USDA-FSIS has not yet been able to determine a common supplier, distributor or brand of beef.

2018 Beef E. coli Outbreak

Cargill Ground Beef E. coli Outbreak

A Cargill ground beef E. coli outbreak sickened 18 people in July 2018. One of them died. The CDC discovered the outbreak in September. A traceback investigation linked the illnesses to ground beef produced by Cargill Meat Solutions in Fort Morgan, Colorado.  The company issued a recall for ground beef that was sold at grocery stores including Meijer, Safeway and Sam’s Club stores nationwide, at Target stores in five states and Publix stores in Florida.

The CDC declared an end to the Cargill E. coli O26 outbreak five days after announcing it. Fifteen of the illnesses were reported from Florida. And three other states, Colorado, Massachusetts and Tennessee, each reported one illness. Six people were hospitalized with HUS. One person in Florida died.

2016 Beef E. coli Outbreak

Adams Farm Slaughterhouse E. coli Outbreak

In September 2016, the CDC announced an E. coli outbreak linked to beef, veal and bison products produced by Adams Farm Slaughterhouse in Athol, Massachusetts. Eleven people in five states were sickened. Seven of them were hospitalized, one of whom developed HUS.

The company issued a recall for various cuts of meat associated with the E. coli O157: H7 outbreak. Illnesses were reported from July through September by a case-patients who ranged in age from 1 year to 74 years old.

2014 Ground Beef E. coli Outbreak

Wolverine Packing Ground Beef E. coli Outbreak

In 2014, an E. coli O157: H7 outbreak linked to ground beef products produced by Wolverine Packing Co. of Detroit sickened 12 people in four states. Those sickened ranged in age from 16 to 46.   Seven people were hospitalized.

The company issued a ground beef recall of products associated with E. coli illnesses reported in April and May of that year. Michigan and Ohio each reported five cases. Missouri and Massachusetts each reported one.

2010 Beef E. coli Outbreak

National Steak & Poultry E. coli Outbreak

The CDC declared an end to the National Steak & Poultry E. coli O157: H7 outbreak in January 2010 but it actually began in October 2009. Twenty-one people, who ranged in age from 14-87 were sickened. Nine of them were hospitalized, one with HUS.

Many of those sickened reported eating steak at restaurants before they became ill. The company issued a recall for blade-tenderized steaks. Steaks and whole cuts of meat usually pose less of a threat for bacterial contamination if they are cooked properly because any bacteria on the surfaces of the meat is killed during cooking.

When beef is ground, any bacteria on the surface of the cut is mixed throughout the ground beef product. Similarly, with blade tenderizing or needle tenderizing, the surface of the meat is pierced pushing any bacteria on the surface into the center of the cut. Cuts of meat tenderized in this way need to be cooked to the higher internal temperature recommended for ground beef to ensure any dangerous bacteria is killed.

2009 Beef E. coli Outbreaks

Fairbank Farms E. coli Outbreak

In 2009, a ground beef Fairbank Farms E. coli outbreak sickened 26 people in eight states during September and October. The case-patients ranged in age from 1 year to 88 years old. Nineteen of them were hospitalized, five delved HUS and two people died. 

Massachusetts reported eight cases, Connecticut reported six, Maine and New Hampshire each reported four and California, Maryland, New York and Vermont each reported one case.

The company issued a recall for ground beef products that were sold at what the CDC described as a “common retail chain.”

JBS Swift E. coli Outbreak

In July of 2009, the CDC declared an end to an E.coli O157: H7 outbreak linked to JBS Swift Beef Co. that sickened 23 people in nine states from April to June. The CDC reported the case count by state as follows: California (4), Maine (1), Michigan (6), Minnesota (1), New Hampshire (1), New Jersey (2), New Mexico (1), New York (1) and Wisconsin (6).

The case-patients ranged in age from 2 to 74 years old. At least 12 of them were hospitalized and two developed HUS.

2008 Beef E. coli Outbreaks

Kroger/Nebraska Ground Beef E. coli Outbreak

In 2008, an E. coli outbreak linked to ground beef produced by Nebraska Beef Ltd. and sold at Kroger grocery stores sickened 49 people. Both companies issued recalls for the meat which was also served at restaurants.

The case-patients ranged in age from 4 to 78 years old. Twenty-seven of them were hospitalized, one with HUS. They reported onset of illness between May and July.

2007 Beef E. coli Outbreaks

Topp’s Ground Beef Patties E. coli Outbreak

In 2008, an E. coli O157: H7 outbreak linked to Topp’s brand ground beef patties sickened 40 people in eight states from July to September when Topp’s issued a recall for 21 million pounds of ground beef patties. 

Twenty-one of the case-patients, who ranged in age from 1 year to 77 years old, were hospitalized. Two of them developed HUS. The case count by state, according to the CDC, was Connecticut (2), Florida (1), Indiana (1), Maine (1), New Jersey (9), New York (13), Ohio (1), and Pennsylvania (12).

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