Saturday, September 25, 2010

Beef plants wage war on E. coli

FORT MORGAN, Colo. — Amid the cattle carcasses zipping down the disassembly line and the herd of workers wielding the sharpest of knives, there's a war going on each day at Cargill Inc.'s sprawling beef plant on the northeastern Colorado plains.
It's a fight against E. coli, potentially lethal bacteria behind several big disease outbreaks and food recalls in recent years. It's fought with technology, lab testing and a phalanx of safety inspectors, and it may soon involve a pioneering vaccine that cuts E. coli risks before cattle even arrive at the slaughterhouse.

Cargill's — and for that matter the meat industry's — ultimate goal: Never repeat the experience of Stephanie Smith.

Smith is the young Cold Spring, Minn., dance instructor who lost the use of her legs, bowel and bladder in 2007 after eating a Cargill-made hamburger tainted with E. coli O157:H7. The highly publicized Smith case highlighted the human consequences of even one safety slip-up.

Big food recalls and disease outbreaks also can cost a company tens of millions of dollars while tainting a firm's reputation. It's a critical issue for Cargill, a global food colossus that is based in Minnetonka, Minn.

A recent survey conducted for National Public Radio found that 61 percent of Americans were worried about contamination of their food supply, with meat the top concern.

"I've interacted with people who've had foodborne illnesses, and it is a terrible and painful thing for them and their families," said Nicole Johnson-Hoffman, general manager of Cargill's Fort Morgan plant and a lawyer who worked on the Smith case. "We need to keep these people in mind when we do our job."

Yet for all the effort to contain E. coli, the fight seems to get only tougher, as evidenced by an August recall from a Cargill meat plant in Pennsylvania. It was a relatively minor one as recalls go. But it involved a strain of E. coli — O26 — that had not previously been associated with meat that got people sick.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 73,000 people get sick each year from E. coli O157:H7. The transmission of the bacteria to people is simple: through feces. With one mistake at the slaughterhouse, a microscopic piece of cattle dung can make its way onto an animal's carcass and into a finished beef product, though proper cooking will kill it.

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