Guest Blog: Reducing E. coli O157:H7 In Frozen Ground Beef

The following Guest Blog first appeared on Safety Zone, a regular blog feature on the site, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of its author, Dr. James Marsden.

Retail Frozen Ground Beef Patties and Risks of E. coli O157:H7

It’s time to recognize that retail frozen ground beef patties pose an increased risk to consumers and take steps to reduce that risk.

If you conduct a Google search using the words “frozen ground beef patties and E. coli”, you will see that this product category has been implicated in an inordinate number of cases, outbreaks and recalls. The Topps recall and other highly publicized events over the past several years resulted from contaminated frozen ground beef patties. The October New York Times story that described a devastating illness that resulted from E. coli O157:H7 contamination also involved retail frozen ground beef patties.

Frozen ground beef patties were also implicated in the 1993 Jack-in-the-Box outbreak and other early public health events involving E. coli O157:H7. Fast food chains have taken steps to assure the safety of frozen beef patties, including raw material and finished product testing, the implementation of validated cooking processes that fully inactivate E. coli O157:H7 and process control measures that guarantee proper cooking every time. These systems have been effective in controlling the problem in fast food restaurants and other restaurants that use frozen beef patties.

The problem still exists when consumers prepare retail frozen ground beef patties at home. This is because frozen patties are inherently difficult to cook uniformly and sufficiently to control pathogens. If all consumers were educated about the risks associated with frozen beef patties, and took the same steps that have been successful in restaurant preparation, the problem would be solved. This would require that great care be taken when cooking frozen beef patties and the universal use of thermometers to verify that the cooked product has reached a minimum temperature of 160 degrees F. Efforts to inform and encourage consumers to adhere to these practices should continue. However, it is not realistic to expect that all consumers will apply perfect cooking methods when preparing frozen ground beef patties. The risk of E. coli contamination in these products has to be reduced upstream.

Here are 6 steps that I believe would make frozen ground beef patties safer for consumers:

  1. Assure that beef carcasses are processed to minimize the risk of pathogen contamination.
  2. Apply a validated intervention to chilled beef carcasses prior to fabrication.
  3. Test beef trimmings for E. coli O157:H7 using N-60 sampling procedures at slaughter plant.
  4. Apply at least one validated intervention to beef trimmings before grinding.
  5. Adopt a test and hold policy for finished frozen ground beef patties that applies to every production lot (Microbiological testing procedures now allow for results in less than 24 hours).
  6. Implement a prominent labeling statement for frozen ground beef patties with consumer information that underscores the importance of proper cooking (in addition to safe handling labels).

These steps in addition to continued efforts to identify and implement pre-harvest interventions and carcass pasteurization technologies would reduce the risk of E. coli O157:H7 in retail frozen ground patties and also help restore consumer confidence in beef products in general.

About Jim Marsden: Dr. James L. Marsden is Regent’s Distinguished Professor of Food Safety and Security at Kansas State University, and the senior science advisor for the North American Meat Processors Association. He is the past president of the American Meat Institute Foundation in Washington, DC and a graduate of Oklahoma State University.

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