Tag Archives: E. coli

False positives matter: A real-life case study in understanding context

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

Photo: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Photo: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Something happened in our family early in August that set me behind in my work for more than three months. What we experienced holds an important lesson for health journalists.

It is something seemingly small and simple, but with significant potential consequences. However, I need to provide a bit of context in my story to illustrate a phenomenon journalists need to keep in mind when reporting on screening and diagnostic tests. Continue reading

KC Star: Centralization of Big Beef also aggregates risk

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Mike McGraw’s recent investigation into “big beef” at The Kansas City Star begins with an interesting assumption: Regardless of their safety record, massive slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants introduce unacceptable systemic risk based on their size alone. Or, as he summarizes the argument, “When processing speed and volumes rise, so do the chances for contamination to be introduced and spread widely from its source to other meat inside the plant and at other plants that process it further.”

In particular McGraw focuses on mechanical tenderizing, a relatively new process in which tougher pieces of beef are penetrated with sharp metal blades to break up their fibers. The blades can also pick up E. coli from the meat’s exterior and ram it deep inside, where it’s less likely to be killed when the future steak is seared and served. Statistics are hard to come by, but because the practice is so widespread in the nation’s meat supply, the risk it introduces enjoys similar reach.

USDA data analyzed by The Star show that large plants until recently had higher rates of positive E. coli tests than smaller plants. Federal meat safety officials said the latest data show big plants are improving.

But the volume of meat a plant produces is a key issue. A USDA study published in March showed that from 2007 through 2011, E. coli positives at very small plants resulted, The Star found, in only 465,000 pounds of contaminated beef. A slightly lower rate of positive tests at large plants, however, produced more than 51 million pounds of contaminated beef.

Regardless, experts agree that most E. coli generally originates at larger slaughter plants, where pathogen-laden manure is a bigger problem because that’s where cattle are coming in from the feedlots.

Project follows the race to make bagged salad safer

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

The latest investigation by California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting’s Deborah Schoch will make you think twice before ripping into a sack of spring mix, but her work about the myriad food safety challenges posed by bagged salads examines the industry’s struggle to develop technology powerful enough to overcome the existential threat posed by E. coli and friends.

The industry has made great strides since a 2006 outbreak linked to tainted spinach, she writes, but “It’s impossible to stop all pathogens from landing on lettuce and spinach leaves.” And once they’re on the leaves, it seems as if their spread is almost inevitable. They hide in gooey biofilms and resist powerful washes.

Thousands upon thousands of salad leaves are taken to a central plant, washed together, bagged and shipped. Even if only a few leaves are tainted, harmful pathogens can spread in the wash water — the modern salad version of the old adage that one bad apple spoils the whole barrel.

“I would think of it as swimming in a swimming pool in Las Vegas with a thousand people I didn’t know,” said William Marler, a prominent Seattle-based food safety attorney.

Plenty of public and industry money has been aimed at the problem, Schoch writes. “The Center for Produce Safety at UC Davis, founded in response to the spinach outbreak as an industry-public partnership, has pumped more than $9 million into 54 research projects at 18 universities.”

Even the best research can’t reduce the risk of contaminated greens by 100%, scientists said. At Earthbound, Daniels says the ultimate goal is to achieve what scientists call a “5 log reduction,” the equivalent of pasteurizing milk. In short, if an unwashed lettuce contained 100,000 pathogens, the perfect wash system would knock off five “0s” and reduce the pathogen count to 1.

An added bonus? Schoch’s column on whether she (and the experts she talked to) feel like it’s important, or even salutary, to wash their bagged greens.

NYT’s Moss continues to follow E. coli story

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

The national gag reflex alert level has slipped back to “yellow” in the months since New York Times reporter Michael Moss’ epic rendering (pun intended) of the journey that meat (and the E. coli that tags along) take on the way to your hamburger patty, but that doesn’t mean Moss has abandoned the issue.

Moss’ latest reports have followed the evolution of the issues raised by his report (and related earlier efforts). Since that first story, Tyson’s started to clean up its act (or at least let others clean that act up for them), the pinpointing of another outbreak ratcheted up the pressure and lawmakers have introduced legislation that would require that ground beef components be tested for E. coli.