The Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service has been unable to identify the origin of multi-drug resistant Salmonella bacteria in ground beef that has made 38 people ill across the Southwest.
The fresh ground beef that made those people ill may have been sold between Sept. 19 and Nov. 5 at Safeway supermarkets in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and New Mexico, but beyond that, the USDA and its federal and state partners in the investigation were unable to identify "specific establishments, lots and products" responsible for the beef being recalled. None of the beef is still for sale.
The mysterious origins of the contamination are particularly worrisome, given that the Salmonella is resistant to several antibiotic drugs. Salmonellosis cam cause serious and life-threatening infections, and is particularly dangerous to those with weak immune systems, including young children and the elderly.
Drug resistance is a long-standing but growing concern, particularly with industrial-scale farming. When animals are kept densely packed in close proximity, there's a greater chance of diseases spreading, which leads farmers to use more antibiotics to treat and preempt disease outbreaks. Those two conditions can further conspire to help bacteria rapidly evolve resistance to common drugs, which makes them more dangerous not only to animals, but to humans.
This is only the latest incident involving contaminated beef this year, raising concern that the USDA and the beef industry is failing to protect the American public from tainted beef. This year alone, 30 million pounds of ground beef have been recalled in 20 separate incidents, all due the presence of E. coli, another potentially deadly bacterium, according to the Washington Post.
The USDA's efforts to improve meat safety had been seen as a success, after three quiet years; now that success appears tainted as well.
For those who choose to buy beef, the best protection is to prepare it carefully. The USDA recommends taking these precautions when handling ground beef:
Wash hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling raw meat and poultry. Also wash cutting boards, dishes and utensils with hot soapy water. Clean up spills right away.
Keep raw meat, fish and poultry away from other food that will not be cooked. Use separate cutting boards for raw meat, poultry and egg products and cooked foods.
Cook raw meat and poultry to safe internal temperatures before eating. The safe internal temperature for meat such as beef and pork is 160° F, and 165° F for poultry, as determined with a food thermometer.
Refrigerate raw meat and poultry within two hours after purchase (one hour if temperatures exceed 90° F). Refrigerate cooked meat and poultry within two hours after cooking.