Ground beef was recalled this week from a Coon Rapids Costco store after a child became sick with a dangerous strain of E. coli, and food safety experts say the recall illustrates a larger safety issue with U.S. hamburger production.
The recalled ground beef, which was sold to 342 consumers, was a mix of meat from one California Costco plant and beef trimmings from 16 other non-Costco plants. Mixing the trimmings — essentially fat cuttings from steak and roasts called "bench trim" — with higher quality ground beef is common in hamburger production.
"Bench trim has always been a bugaboo in E. coli outbreaks," said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in food safety cases. "It's a flaw in the hamburger making machinery, so to speak,"
Just over 380 packages of hamburger sold between Sept. 4 and Sept. 7 at the Costco Wholesale located at 12547 Riverdale Av. is subject to the recall, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The meat bears the Costco item number 33724, and the recall is relatively small.
The USDA was notified of a case of E. coli O157:H7 on Thursday, Oct. 17. It involved a child from the metro area who was hospitalized, but who is now home and recovering, said Doug Schultz, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Health.
Working with the Minnesota departments of health and agriculture, the USDA determined there was a link between the Costco product and the child's illness.
E. coli O157:H7 is a potentially deadly bacterium in not-fully-cooked meat that can cause dehydration, bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps. While most people recover in a week, some can develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which can cause serious kidney damage or even death.
HUS particularly occurs in older people and children. The Minnesota child in the Coon Rapids E. coli case did not contract HUS, Schultz said.
The USDA and Costco are concerned that "some product may be frozen in consumers' freezers," a USDA statement said. Issaquah, Wash.-based Costco has taken steps to contact every person who has purchased the ground beef in question.
"We're pretty confident they were able to reach everybody affected," said Alexandra Tarrant, a USDA spokeswoman.
Craig Wilson, a Costco spokesman, said "there's no indication" of any other cases. "It doesn't seem like there will be a major outbreak."
The meat in question originated from high-grade ground beef from a Costco plant in Tracy, Calif., that was mixed with bench trim prepared at the Coon Rapids store.
The steaks and roasts that were the source of the bench trim may have originated from as many as 16 USDA-inspected meat production plants. Costco is "pretty confident" bench trim is the problem's source, based on what state regulators have concluded, Wilson said.
Fred Pritzker, a Minneapolis attorney who specializes in food safety cases, said bench trim is basically used to augment fat levels in hamburger.
But because it's often ultimately sourced from several meat processing plants, it's difficult to track where an E. coli bug originated. "We see this all the time," he said.