KEEPING BEEF SAFE TO EAT.
More than three years have passed since four people were killed and hundreds made ill by a Pacific Coast outbreak of the dreaded E. coli O157:H7 traced to ground beef, but concern about the virulent bacteria hasn't subsided.
Prompted by a government demand for zero tolerance of pathogens in fresh meat and the realization that even microscopic amounts of E. coli O157:H7 could spell ruin for meat producers, processors have focused on research to keep the beef you eat safe. They even have called in the services of the bewhiskered TV cook, Mr. Food.
The processors' concern is even more relevant in light of Great Britain's problems with mad cow disease, though that is a different problem than any bacterial contamination in the United States.
In the last four years the National Cattlemen's Beef Association has spent $5 million devising new systems to keep beef products safe, particularly in the initial stages of processing.
Pathogenic organisms, such as salmonella, listeria and E. coli O157:H7, grow in digestive tracts and on hides of live animals, so it's vital that carcasses of just-slaughtered and skinned animals be cleaned to kill destructive bacteria and prevent cross contamination.
Beef soon may be steam vacuumed, using a technique and equipment similar to the system used to clean carpets. The Department of Agriculture has permitted vacuuming fresh beef tissue as an alternative to the present USDA method of trimming away contaminants with a knife after a visual inspection.
Experiments supervised by the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service have found that steam vacuuming is much more efficient than knife trimming for reducing bacterial levels, said James O. Reagan, director of the food safety research program for the association. Using a trimming knife is risky.
``Instead of removing contaminants, it can spread them,'' Reagan said, because of more handling of the meat.
Processors also are experimenting with high-pressure washes in which beef is sprayed with 190-degree water. Other methods involve treating the carcasses with mild organic acids - such as acetic, citric or lactic acid - or with other antimicrobial agents such as tri-sodium phosphate or chlorinated water.
The concentrations are very mild. The vinegar, for example, is only 1.5 percent to 2 percent, Reagan says, not as strong as household vinegar, which is about 5 percent acetic acid.
Not every method is good for every kind of pathogen, Reagan says. Unfortunately, salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 are tougher to annihilate than bacteria such as listeria. Complicating the problem is that what kills bugs in a laboratory may not be efficient in a production line. Possible solutions create their own difficulties, such as condensation from steam that collects on the ceiling and elsewhere, where it can get contaminated and drip.
There's also the question of what bacteria you want to kill, said Reagan. Some bacteria are beneficial. Spoilage bacteria play a valuable role because they signal that meat is old and no longer palatable before it is dangerous.
In 1995, the USDA's inspection service tested about 6,000 samples and found only three that showed pathogens (about .05 percent). So far in 1996 testing, they have found none.
``I can say unequivocally that the beef going into the cooler (at the end of the processing line) today is the safest we've ever seen,'' Reagan said.
J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, agrees, though he said there still is more to be done. The industry has yet to establish a system to ensure zero tolerance nationwide, he said. But the industry is working with the USDA to accomplish that goal.
The best way to guarantee sanitized beef at the processing plant may be low-dose irradiation, which already has been approved for produce and poultry. So far, no large producer will risk even mentioning it, Boyle says, even though opinion polls show most Americans would accepted irradiated meat.
Even if meat plants could eliminate every pathogen, it would solve only a small part of the meat-safety equation, especially as applied to hamburger.
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta show that only about 3 percent of contamination problems are traced to processing. The greatest difficulties are with food service, catering and restaurants, where about 77 percent of food safety problems occur, though it is hard to determine where the original pathogens were introduced. The deaths in the Pacific Northwest were traced to poorly cooked meat at a fast-food restaurant, but the bugs were there to begin with.
Improper handling and lax sanitary conditions in homes account for about 20 percent of problems, Boyle says. In addition to safety research at the processing end, the cattlemen's association is campaigning to increase awareness of food safety in the home. That's where Mr. Food, who appears on 120 television stations and whose real name is Art Ginsburg, comes in. Colorful cards containing beef-oriented recipes from Mr. Food will be handed out at supermarkets, says C.J. Valenziano, consumer affairs director of the association. Cards will contain key points for keeping kitchens safe from bacterial contamination.
The biggest risk now comes from E. coli O157:H7, which can cause severe gastric distress and even can kill young children and those with compromised immune systems. This nasty strain of the common E. coli - as well as other bacteria - may come from sources other than the original cow, particularly infected humans handling the meat.
To be safe it is crucial to cook meat thoroughly, especially ground beef. Because bacteria collects on meat surfaces, steaks and roasts that have not been pierced can be cooked rare inside as long as the whole surface has been heated thoroughly. But hamburger, because it has been ground up, must be cooked to 165 degrees F throughout, enough so pinkness disappears and juices run clear. ``That doesn't mean it has to be charred,'' Boyle says. ``But it does need to be cooked.''
Photo: (Color) New methods to improve meat safety, such assteam vacuuming, are being explored by the beef industry.
James F. Quinn/Chicago Tribune