There's another salmonella scare -- this time with ground beef from a Fresno packinghouse.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Thursday that Beef Packers Inc. was recalling more than 800,000 pounds of ground beef products that may be linked to an outbreak of salmonella-caused illnesses. The company is a division of Minneapolis-based agribusiness giant Cargill Inc.
The beef was processed between June 5 and June 23 and has "EST. 31913" printed on the case code labels. It was sold in stores in California, Arizona, Colorado and Utah.
Because the meat was repackaged into consumer-size amounts and sold under various retail brand names, the agency is urging shoppers to check with their retailers to determine whether they may have bought any of the meat.
Consumers with questions about the recall can also call the Beef Packers consumer line at (877) 872-3635.
The link between the salmonella outbreak and the ground beef was discovered by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment after a flurry of illnesses. The agency alerted federal authorities.
This outbreak involves the Salmonella newport strain of the disease, which is resistant to many commonly prescribed drugs and results more frequently in hospitalization, regulators said.
Salmonella is among the most common food-borne illnesses and can be life-threatening to people with weak immune systems, including infants, the elderly, those with HIV infection and those undergoing chemotherapy. People typically start to get diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever within eight to 72 hours of infection. Additional symptoms include chills, headache, nausea and vomiting, and the disease can last up to seven days.
Salmonella sometimes appears in foods that are typically eaten raw, such as tomatoes, peppers and melons. Just two weeks ago a Salinas company recalled romaine lettuce because it was linked to the illness. An outbreak linked to peanuts this year killed at least nine people.
The steady drumbeat of food-borne illness outbreaks prompted the House of Representatives to pass food safety legislation last week. The bill would require more government inspections and oversight of food manufacturers and give the Food and Drug Administration new authority to order recalls. (The USDA oversees meat products.)
It also would require the FDA to develop a system to better trace food-borne illnesses and would allow the government to penalize those who violate the law. Food companies would be required to create detailed food safety plans. A similar bill awaits action in the Senate.
Regulators probably jumped on the beef case out of concern for antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella, said William Marler, a Seattle attorney and food safety expert who specializes in food-borne illness litigation.
Unlike the often-lethal food-borne bacterium E. coli O157:H7, salmonella is not considered an "adulterant" by federal food regulations and does not trigger an automatic recall, Marler said.
"I commend the company for recalling the beef because legally, they would be on strong ground not to do so," he said.
The pathogens are treated differently because it takes only a small amount of E. coli O157:H7 -- just 50 organisms -- to infect a person, whereas it typically takes millions of salmonella bacteria to trigger an illness, Marler said.
Nonetheless, Marler would like to see regulation expanded to include salmonella and other pathogens that cause serious illness.
"I think that anything that can poison or kill a person should be listed as an adulterant," he said.
Increased regulation, however, still might not reduce the number of food-borne illness outbreaks, said Mark Jarvis, chief executive of Steritech Group, a San Diego food safety and plant inspection firm.
"In the final analysis, this is most often simply an execution gap -- even the most rigorous food safety and quality standards are valueless unless manufacturers are able to operationalize them," Jarvis said.
He said improvements in tracking of food products could help reduce the size of the outbreaks.
"Is it reasonable to expect thousands of consumers to contact their local grocers to find out whether the product was contaminated or not? Sophisticated, technology-enabled systems should be in place to determine, at the click of a button, which product is contaminated so that it can be withdrawn from the market in a timely and effective fashion," Jarvis said.
In the meantime, thorough cooking and proper handling can prevent infections from contaminated meats.
Some precautions include washing hands with hot, soapy water for at least 20 seconds both before and after handling raw meat and poultry. Cooks should prevent raw meat, fish and poultry from touching food that will be served raw, such as fruit and vegetables. And dishes and utensils used to prepare meats should not also be used for other raw foods unless they are first washed with hot, soapy water.
The USDA also suggests using one set of cutting boards for raw meat, poultry and egg products and a different set for preparing foods that will be served without cooking.
Beef and pork should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. Poultry needs to go to 165 degrees. A good food thermometer is helpful for checking the internal temperatures of meat.
It's also important to get raw meat and poultry into the refrigerator within two hours after purchase, and even faster on hot days.