A recent recall of ground beef is an all-to serious reminder that bacteria that cause food-borne illness such as E. coli can be eliminated in many foods – including ground beef – as long as it is properly cooked.
E. coli bacteria, including the strain of E. coli that is the cause of a ground beef recall by ConAgra, can be destroyed if cooked all the way through to 160 degrees, preventing illness as long as the meat also is properly handled after preparation. Food safety experts at Colorado State University stress that all foods should be handled and prepared properly at all times, whether during an outbreak or not, to prevent food-borne illness.
"Many strains of E. coli live peacefully in our gut, keeping the growth of more harmful organisms in check and even helping us produce some B vitamins. But this strain of E. coli – known as E. coli O157:H7, can cause dire illness if it is present in foods and not destroyed by proper cooking," said Pat Kendall, Colorado State Cooperative Extension food safety specialist.
Kendall recommends that anyone who believes that they have ground beef contaminated by E. coli from that is recalled still return the meat to their grocery store, but that consumers also always carefully prepare and handle all foods, including meat, which requires the use of a thermometer.
"Use a thermometer to make sure that meats are thoroughly cooked," said Kendall. "Experts know that judging how done meat is by its color is deceptive; it’s critical to check the temperature of meat to ensure that is has been cooked to 160 degrees. That’s because the color of meat is related to several factors including fat content, freshness and pigments in the meat. Some ground beef patties, for example, will turn brown at lower temperatures than others, which may remain pink even when cooked to temperatures above 160 degrees for a variety of reasons."
Most outbreaks of illness caused from E. coli O157:H7 have been traced to undercooked ground beef, raw (unpasteurized) milk or dairy products, unpasteurized apple juice and contaminated water. This strain of E. coli is particularly hazardous because only a few cells of bacteria need to be present to cause an illness. The bacteria also is very tolerant to cold, which means that it can survive in refrigerators and freezers, but is does not survive temperatures above 160 degrees.
Kendall also recommends that consumers pick meat patties and other perishables as last items while at the grocery store. Once home, store meat and poultry in the refrigerator or, if they won’t be eaten within three to four days, in the freezer. Store meat in the refrigerator on the bottom shelves so that the packages don’t drip onto fresh produce, contaminating other food. Thaw meat in the refrigerator or in the microwave, but never on the counter since room temperature encourages bacteria to grow.
For more information about preventing E. coli contamination and food-borne illness, visit www.agnews.colostate.edu and search the background information for E. coli or call the local Cooperative Extension office, usually listed under the county government section of the local phone book.