Source of Vermont E. coli Outbreak Tests Negative for Bacteria

Last week we reported on an ongoing <"">E. coli outbreak in which 10 people were diagnosed with a food borne illness and one child was hospitalized.  The Vermont Department of Health issued two warnings against the consumption of undercooked meat in response to the growing E. coli infection that was initially thought to be linked to a single source of ground beef distributed to “a few restaurants in Vermont.”  Late last week we reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirmed that contamination was traced to the Vermont Livestock, Slaughter, and Processing Company located in Ferrisburgh.

Now, federal officials are reporting that despite that tests of suspicious ground beef revealed no E. coli they are certain they located the source of the Vermont outbreak.  Vermont Livestock Slaughter and Processing recalled over 2,758 pounds of ground beef Thursday.  Owner Carl Cushing said that while none of the government’s tests found E. coli in his meat, he would cooperate in the interest of safety.

Laura Reiser, a spokeswoman for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), confirmed Friday that tests of Cushing’s beef came back negative, but said that did not mean there was no E. coli, explaining that testing is performed by taking a random sample from a batch of meat and testing it; therefore, E. coli can have a ‘local presence” in a batch of meat and thus remain undetected, she pointed out.  “Even if a test is negative, it’s possible that the E. coli wasn’t in the part that was (tested),” she said.

Reiser advised that state investigators took a food history from all those who tested positive for E. coli in Vermont in this outbreak, and the one common link was that they had all eaten ground beef that passed through the Ferrisburgh slaughterhouse.  State officials said the meat was packaged in five-pound bags, two bags to a box, labeled VT BURGER CO GROUND BEEF bearing the number EST 9558 inside the USDA mark of inspection with a lot code of 090508A, 090808A, 091208A, 091908A, or 092208A.  The product was produced on September 5, 8, 12, 19, and 22 and sold to restaurants and institutions in Vermont and Plattsburg, New York.  None of the recalled, suspect meat was sold to grocery stores according to state officials.

Reiser said federal and state officials would continue to conduct tests and review procedures at Vermont Livestock Slaughter and Processing.  Reiser also noted that E. coli infections in ground meat are of particular concern because it is in the grinding process that the bacteria can spread through the meat where it is not easily killed by the heat of cooking.  Food safety advocates recommend cooking ground meat to an internal temperature of 160 degrees.

The contamination was discovered through a joint investigation with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the state Health Department in Vermont.

Left untreated, E. coli toxicity can result in kidney damage and failure, said Deputy State Epidemiologist Susan Schoenfeld. 

“It’s important to remember that eating undercooked meat—as well as consuming raw milk products—is always a risk for E. coli and other bacteria that can cause severe illness, especially in young children, the elderly, or people with serious medical conditions,” she said. 

The Department of Health release stated that cooking ground meat beyond the pink stage is no guarantee that harmful bacteria have been killed.

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