About 1.8 million pounds of ground beef have been yanked from the shelves after the meat was linked to nearly a dozen cases of E. coli in several different states, federal health officials announced this week. It’s the largest E. coli recall of its kind within the past six years — and now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is concerned that the tainted beef was distributed to restaurants and grocery stores across the country.
E. coli is a foodborne illness that can cause diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Most people recover in about a week, but in some severe cases, the bacteria can cause potentially life-threatening kidney failure. The government has categorized the current recall as Class I, defined as a “health hazard situation where there is a reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death.”
The outbreak originated at Wolverine Packing Co., a meat packing company located in Detroit. The company voluntarily recalled nearly two million pounds of its beef that was produced between March 31 and April 18. The USDA initially announced that some of the recalled meat was shipped to restaurants in Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, and Ohio. Federal officials are now saying that the beef may have made its way to twelve states, which crosses the threshold of what’s considered to be a national recall.
The USDA is maintaining a list of the products that are implicated, but the agency isn’t specifying exactly where those products were distributed. Government officials aren’t required to say which restaurants and stores may have been impacted by a recall. Instead, they’re telling Americans that the recalled products have the establishment number “2574B,” and warning people to wash their hands and fully cook their meat.
According to NBC News, this is the largest recall of ground beef tied to this particular strain of E. coli since the summer of 2008, when more than six million pounds of meat were pulled from the shelves after sickening as many as 79 people. But it’s hardly the only beef-related issue since then. The average American consumes roughly 270 pounds of meat each year, and ground beef is one of the types of meat that’s most likely to make them sick. Just a few months ago, a meat packing company recalled nine million pounds of its beef products because they came from animals that were never inspected.
Even outside beef products, food poisoning is an incredibly common experience in the United States. All told, about 48 million Americans fall ill after eating contaminated food every year, and about 128,000 of them get sick enough to land in the hospital. Foodborne illnesses cost the United States an annual $77 billion in medical costs and lost productivity. Food safety advocates have been pushing for more regulatory oversight in this area for years, but — partly thanks to budget cuts that have strained food inspections — we haven’t made much progress recently. Since 2006, the rate of foodborne illnesses hasn’t decreased for any of the major disease agents, including E. coli.