The Great E. Coli Panic

The Topps Meat Company recalled 21 million pounds of ground beef last week after samples from a New Jersey facility tested positive for a dangerous strain of E. coli. Science correspondent Joe Palca asks whether one E. coli outbreak is enough to warrant that kind of response.

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LUKE BURBANK, host:

Today, though, we're thinking about this big meat recall that happened last week - 21 million pounds of beef. The Topps Meat Company of New Jersey did this recall because a batch of ground beef tested positive for E.coli. So far, 27 reported illnesses, three of those have been confirmed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Yesterday, though, I get an e-mail from our very own Joe Palca who says, you know, people may be overreacting to this. And science correspondent Joe Palca joins us now. Hi, Joe.

JOE PALCA: Good morning.

BURBANK: So why might this be an overreaction, you think?

PALCA: Well, I - again, I don't want to say it's an overreaction in the sense that if this meat is contaminated - which clearly the company and the USDA, the Department of Agriculture, think it is 0 then it's probably a good idea to get off the shelves. It's just that, you know, people, this is - so E.coli - it's not just all E.coli. This is a very special E.coli. It's called O157:H7. And it happens to be a particular…

BURBANK: Did you do that from memory?

PALCA: Yes. Listen, I've been reporting on E.coli O157:H7 since it actually has popped up as early '80s.

ALISON STEWART, host:

Since before you were born, Luke.

PALCA: Yes, yes.

BURBANK: Since E.coli 1537 was in short pants.

PALCA: Right. Right. That's right. Anyway, it turns out that this is a particular strain that does cause gastrointestinal distress and can, in most severe cases, cause organ failure.

The thing is that it is endemic in the gut of cows across America and it's - oops, sorry, that's the toaster - it's little early here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: And it's going to show up from time to time. It's almost impossible to get completely rid off. There are - according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - you know, 73,000 cases of this every year. And the truth is that our food has bacteria on it, in it, near it, and it has to be properly washed and cooked in order to be completely safe.

BURBANK: Is this - I mean, E.coli seems to be something that holds particular fear, though, for people. Why is that?

PALCA: Yeah. Sounds scary.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: And I think, you know, I think that - look, it is the case that there are people who go into this severe syndrome called hemolytic uremic syndrome where their kidneys stop working and they die. And, you know, little kid has a hamburger - this was, became famous a decade or so ago when there was a fast food chain that had obtained their ground beef…

BURBANK: Yeah. The Jack in the Box.

PALCA: That's it. And people - I believe people died, I can't remember - in any case, they got extremely sick.

BURBANK: Yeah.

PALCA: And the fact is that nobody likes the idea of, you know, sitting down at at hamburger, after a hamburger at a restaurant and then coming home and dying. So that, by itself, is a scary scenario. That said, you know, there is a ton of this stuff that is potentially in the food. And it's - most of the time, it's not there in sufficient quantities to make anybody sick. And when it is in there in sufficient quantities, it only makes a few people sick. And in any case, you can get rid off most of it, if not all of it, by cooking the food adequately. But it's so scary, because you can't see it. You can't smell it. You can't taste it. And I suppose that's why people get a little crazy about it.

BURBANK: Could it be in my coffee? I mean, that's the real question at 7:50 in the morning.

PALCA: No. No. I don't think - well, no, I don't think so. No, I don't think so because the beans are roasted, you know? And high temperatures kill this thing. So…

BURBANK: So that's - but then I guess that's the take home, is you can't see it or smell it. But if you - is it just cooking things properly and people shouldn't be worried?

PALCA: That's - I mean, that's the message that the Department of Agriculture has been sending out for a long time. You have to understand something about the particular problem with E.coli O157:H7. I love saying that…

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: …and ground beef. And here's the deal. So this bacteria isn't like spread throughout a cow's muscles or, you know, all through the meat. It's in the gut. Okay? So nobody eats a cow's guts. That's considered not edible. It's usually stripped off the carcass and thrown away.

However, stripping this off the carcass has to be done carefully so you don't get contamination. Sometimes, there is contamination. Okay. So then it's only on the outside of the meat. It's not throughout the whole meat. But what happens in ground beef, they take the whole meat and they throw it in to a meat grinder. And now, whatever was on the outside is on the inside.

So if you have a steak, if you wash the outside of the steak, you don't have anymore O157:H7. But if you have a hamburger that's contaminated, you've got to get into the inside everywhere.

BURBANK: Hmm. Yeah.

STEWART: I think you just turn half of our audience vegan.

BURBANK: Yeah. And by the way, speaking of the gut, Matt Martinez, you literally holding your gut. Our director…

MATT MARTINEZ: This is awful. This is the worst news in the world.

BURBANK: Are you okay? Are you okay?

PALCA: I know. I heard Matt's kind of fastidious about washing (unintelligible).

BURBANK: Yeah.

MARTINEZ: Just a little bit, Joe.

BURBANK: He actually washes the inside lining of his stomach everyday just to be safe. Hey, Joe.

MARTINEZ: With vinegar.

BURBANK: We've got to run. But thank you very much for coming on and helping calm our fears a little bit - not Matt's, but ours.

PALCA: I don't think I'd work with Matt. I think he's a little nervous.

BURBANK: Joe Palca, science correspondent for NPR.

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