Twenty-five years is a long time to be married to one person. It is even a longer time to be missing a child at the dinner table.
Twenty-five years ago four children died, many more were permanently injured, and hundreds were sickened by a bacterium most of us had not even heard of before.
Twenty-five years ago, Feb. 20, 2018, Riley Detwiler of Bellingham, Wash., died, the last of the four children who passed away as a result of the 1993 Jack-in-the-Box E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, sometimes referred to by the Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) as the Western states outbreak.
Riley had never eaten a hamburger. He was secondarily infected by a classmate in his preschool who had the infection but his parents did not know it yet.
There had been prior outbreaks from these bacteria, but none as extensive as this one which became infamous and made Bill Marler synonymous with foodborne illnesses.
But the past is behind us, and I want to take a few minutes on this unhappy anniversary to make note of the changes that came about in the world of food safety as a result of it. Lives were lost but because of the losses many more lives have subsequently been lived happily and disease free, at least free of diseases spread by contaminated food.
The industry and the regulators made changes, some of which, in no particular order, follow;
1. Probably first and foremost, E. coli O157:H7 was declared an adulterant in ground beef, announced by Mike Taylor, then the acting undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, at an annual meeting of the American Meat Institute, a move which took industry by total surprise. It also assured that the then acting undersecretary for food safety at USDA would never be Senate confirmed.
2. E. coli O157:H7 was upgraded to reportable disease status at all state health departments.
3. After losing a court battle to reverse Taylor’s decision, the meat industry declared that food safety and public health measures were not proprietary properties.
4. Hot steam vacuum treatment of carcasses was invented and refined by scientists at the Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Neb., a very small town boasting more PhDs per capita than any other town in the U.S.
5. Pulse Field Gel Electrophoresis (PFGE) was developed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and shortly became a part of every state health department laboratory performing testing of human specimens in suspected cases of foodborne illnesses. It is also used to fingerprint bacteria grown from meat and poultry samples. PFGE allows what used to appear to be isolated cases of foodborne illnesses to be developed into clusters, enabling investigators to more quickly isolate the cause of the outbreak and regulators to remove contaminated product from stores and hopefully kitchens.
6. Food & Drug Administration increased the recommended temperature for cooking ground beef from 140 degrees F to 155 degrees. The current USDA recommendation is to cook to 160 degrees using a digital thermometer.
7. In 1997, following the Hudson Foods recall, and at the request of Nebraska’s Gov. Ben Nelson, the NCBA created BIFSCo (Beef Industry Food Safety Council). BIFSCo coordinates a broad effort to solve pathogen issues, focusing on research prioritization and information dissemination.
8. Then in 2003, BIFSCo sponsored the first beef safety summit, an annual event since then. At the first summit attendees signed an industry food safety pledge and committed to openly share data and information.
9. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. (NCBA) created a blue ribbon task force headed by old friend Bo Reagan, then with the National Live Stock & Meat Board, a predecessor organization to NCBA where he became vice president of research and knowledge management at NCBA, to fund research into ways to reduce E coli in cattle and slaughterhouses. Bo has since retired from NCBA and now lives just a few miles north of me.
10. The USDA’s Food Safety & Inspection System (FSIS) went from the nearly 100-year-old sniff and poke inspection system to one designed to prevent contamination by invisible pathogens like E. coli O157:H7 called HACCP, Hazards Analysis & Critical Control Points, that put more of the burden on the individual facilities.
11. FSIS also initiated testing for E coli O157:H7 in ground beef, later moving the testing to combo bins.
12. Industry also ramped up its own testing of ground beef in plants and could remove and cook or discard contaminated runs. Reporting of industry positives and presumptive positives has never been mandated, and few know what the exact contamination rate of ground beef is. FSIS only tests product after industry has tested and removed known problematic ground beef.
13. In spite of criticism from the industry, the FSIS introduced consumer education programs about the potential dangers in ground beef and safe handling and proper cooking instructions. Despite this effort many restaurants’ wait staff continue to this day to ask “How do you want your burger cooked” and my wife and daughter answer “medium.” AARGH!
14. Irradiation of ground beef was made routine by Schwann’s and Omaha Steaks and offered as an option at Wegman’s.
15. Safe Tables Our Priority, affectionately known as STOP, was formed representing mostly families who had lost a child to an E. coli O157:H7 infection but fighting to “prevent Americans from becoming ill and dying from foodborne illness”. The national organization is now known as STOP foodborne illness. Nancy Donley, who lost her only child to an E. coli infection, was the president of STOP when I was with the FSIS at USDA.
16. FSIS began identifying retail outlets where contaminated meat and poultry were sold in 2008 to help consumers be more aware if they had eaten contaminated product or still had it in their refrigerator or freezer.
17. Recently, FSIS has begun attempting to trace back to the source when a further downstream processor has a ground beef sample test positive for E. coli O157:H7
18. In recent years, FSIS has added six other non-O157 STECs to the list of adulterants.
19. Some packers now use a phage spray on cattle in holding pens, others use hide washes before the knock box to reduce fecal contamination.
20. E. coli vaccines have been developed and gained FDA approval, but are in limited use because of the added cost.
I am certain I have left out a few critical changes, as most were made well before my attention turned from delivering babies to food safety. Please add your thoughts in the comment section.