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March 8, 2002

Study finds harmful E. coli in area beef

Back away from that burger - unless you've taken its temperature. Locally purchased ground beef shows occurrences of a toxic form of E. coli, says Susanne Lindgren, a medical microbiologist and biological sciences professor at California State University, Sacramento.

As part of a recent study, Lindgren and graduate student Julie Oliver tested 200 samples of ground beef from a variety of Sacramento-area outlets - from high-end grocery chains to warehouse stores. They found an 11 percent positive rate of the enterohemorrhagic, or EHEC, strain of E. coli, which can cause serious illness.

"Across the board, regardless of fat content or the store where the meat was purchased, EHEC was there," Lindgren says, "even though the USDA has a zero tolerance for it."

The good news, Lindgren says, is that consumers can protect themselves from potential illness by following safe food preparation procedures, including thoroughly cooking ground beef. "We need to educate consumers to handle food well. I think its unrealistic to expect food to be EHEC-free," she says.

"Not all bacteria are bad. E. coli is the number one aerobic bacteria in our intestines and there are more good E. coli in the world than bad," Lindgren points out. Meat can contain as much as 100,000 bacteria per gram before it is cooked. "Look, it's there. It may not be EHEC but until you know what it is, it's a good idea to follow the guidelines."

Lindgren's and Oliver's analysis of the ground beef involved looking for the gene of an EHEC toxin in each sample. "With this method, you can get really low levels of detection," Lindgren says.

The next phase of the project will be to try to reduce the viability of the pathogen. "We want to see what conditions it can survive in," Lindgren says. "We know heat kills it. And the level drops if you stick it in the freezer but it's still infectious."

More information is available by contacting CSUS public affairs at (916) 278-6156.


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