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Friday, October 16, 2009

Foodborne Illness from Sick Cattle?

October 7, 2009. By Jane Mundy

Charlotte, NC: This past July, Rebecca purchased large packages of ground beef, divided them into small portions and stored them in her home freezer. "Two days later I had a fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea that became so severe I went to urgent care" she says. Rebecca had blood and stool samples taken and was sent home with antibiotics, unaware she was suffering from a foodborne illness.

"I was having about 20 bowel movements a day and there was also blood in my stool," says Rebecca. "The blood test showed that I was severely potassium deficient and my doctor wanted me to go to ER, but I was scheduled to fly to Miami and board a cruise ship the next day.

"Early the next morning I was vomiting and passing a lot of blood so I drove my kids to the airport and went directly to ER where I spent the next 24 hours. I was rehydrated and given potassium by IV. By that time they couldn't pinpoint any bacteria because I had already taken two rounds of Flagyl and Cipro.

One week later I got the results of the stool sample: it tested positive for Salmonella. The culture was sent to the Georgia State lab (I was out of town at the time) for confirmation and typing—it is the state law. And the lab confirmed that I had the Salmonella Newport strain.

I did some research on Salmonella Newport and discovered it comes from dairy cattle, but I believe it came from the ground beef I handled.

When dairy cattle get sick, they are taken to market and that is where a lot of ground beef comes from. I talked to the Centers for Disease Control and the FDA; an agent from the FDA meat safety department told me that there is a legal allowable level of Salmonella to be present in meat when it leaves the packing plant and likely the meat I handled was contaminated--but it was within the allowable level.

I ranted and raged. The FDA agent said if this allowable limit was not in place, the average American citizen could not afford meat: if the standards and tighter safety precautions are set too high, the rate of production would decrease drastically. I couldn't believe it! So what is the allowable FDA level?

I asked for a written transcript of our conversation, and she sent it to me. I didn't eat beef in a restaurant before I got sick. And nobody else in my family had a foodborne illness. I've actually had people laugh at me because I am so safety conscious, constantly washing and wiping. So how could I have contaminated the area?

Perhaps a small amount of blood got into the water bottle I had on the counter. Or maybe I didn't wash my gloved hand well enough. But I do know that it had to be contaminated ground beef that caused me to have food poisoning.

I still have some ground beef in the freezer. I talked to a lab technician and he said the meat would still contain Salmonella but cooking kills it. So I could buy more meat and it could have Salmonella in it too. I bought these jumbo packs at Sam's Club. It's not a question of saving money because I could go to a high-end supermarket and they would have the same standards. My sibling buys half a cow from the local farm—I'm seriously considering buying a deep-freezer and going that route.

A lawyer said there wasn't an outbreak in my area so there is no way they can track a foodborne illness outbreak. I can take that meat to the lab but the burden of proof is way too heavy. However, I'm sure I'm not the only person who got food poisoning from ground beef.

I'm slowly recovering. The hospital doctor said if my potassium level was any lower, my heart could stop. And I was anemic. Apparently this strain—the Salmonella Newport--can cause long term effects. My bowels still don't work properly; right after I eat I get bad cramping and have to go to the bathroom right away. And you can even develop an arthritis condition.

There's one good thing about this incident: Thank god I didn’t get on that cruise—I could have died out there in the Caribbean."

About a month after Rebecca suffered a foodborne illness, a multi-state Salmonella Newport outbreak centered in Colorado caused a recall of about 825,769 pounds of ground beef products manufactured by Fresno, CA-based Beef Packers Inc. The ground beef products were produced on various dates ranging from June 5, 2009 through June 23, 2009.

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