The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has traced the likely origin of the recent E. coli outbreak responsible for 109 infections across six states to ground beef. Despite the widespread nature of the outbreak — affecting people in Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia — there are basic steps consumers can take to reduce their chance of infection, according to Virginia Tech food safety expert Robert Williams.

“An outbreak like this often occurs due to contamination of meat at the meat processing facility, so once contaminated meat is in the kitchen, it can spread to other foods through cross-contamination,” Williams said. “Food preparers play a very important role in helping ensure the safety of meats they serve. Raw meats of any kind should always be handled carefully to prevent foodborne illness.” 

E. coli infection, one of the most common foodborne illnesses in the United States, can be life-threatening to people with weakened immune systems. Even in the midst of such an outbreak, consumers can increase their odds of staying safe as long as they follow proper food safety protocol when preparing ground beef.

“We recommend that consumers remember to clean, separate, cook and chill meat products prepared at home,” Williams said. “Food preparers should start clean by washing food contact surfaces and their hands before preparing raw meat. Raw meats and their juices should be kept separate from foods that will not be cooked, such as salad ingredients. It is best to not use the same cutting board for raw meats and vegetables that won’t be cooked.”

Quoting Williams

“Color is not a good indicator of doneness. Food preparers must use a food thermometer to ensure that the proper temperature has been reached. Hamburgers should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 160 degrees as measured in the thickest, most central part of the burger patty, and leftover cooked meats should be refrigerated within two hours of cooking.”

“Although the CDC currently believes that ground beef is the most likely source of this outbreak, they have not yet been able to identify a common supplier or brand.  This is a significant outbreak of E. coli O103 infections, so it’s important for public health authorities to quickly identify and stop the source of the contaminated meat. Once that happens, I would advise consumers to avoid those specific products.”

image of Robert Williams
Virginia Tech food safety expert Robert Williams (Photo: Alex Hood)

About Williams:

Williams is an Associate Professor in the Food Science and Technology Department at Virginia Tech, where he has spent over 17 years researching food safety, food microbiology, and pathogenic and spoilage microorganisms in foods.

Williams’ Bio

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Article by Alex Hood