Saturday, May 3, 2008

Is hamburger a greater risk for E. coli?

The subject of coliforms in food and specifically the question about hamburger comes up often in the referrals to this blog.

Coliforms are used in the food industry as indicators of general hygiene. This sounds simple, but it is not quite straightforward; we need to understand what coliforms are and how they are measured before we can draw conclusions.

The term “coliform” does not refer to a unique species. In fact, coliforms are a group of bacteria defined by the test used to detect them. Thus, we can carry out a simple culture test that will count or show the presence or absence of this group. Each country uses slightly different tests. One protocol defines coliforms as:

“Gram negative rods that produce acid and gas from lactose in the presence of bile salts at 37 C in 24 to 48 hours”

Notice that there is no mention of genus or species or connection with faecal contamination. In fact, the group includes several genera that are capable of growing in the environment and have no faecal connotation, so finding coliforms on lettuces should not be cause for undue concern. What we can say is that all of these bacteria should be killed by pasteurization temperatures, so if they are found in pasteurized foods, the hygiene of the process has been poor.

If we want to show that faecal contamination of food has occurred, we do a test for Escherichia coli, which is found at high concentration in faeces. This test for “faecal coliforms” was originally used to test water, where the organism cannot grow. The situation in food is a little more complicated because the organisms may grow in the food, but the finding of E. coli in food is good evidence of faecal contamination. Properly pasteurized food should not contain any faecal coliforms. Raw foods, such as leafy vegetables, can become contaminated by faecal coliforms if birds or animals have access to the crops. This was the probable cause of E. coli O157:H7 contamination of raw spinach last year.

Meat animals all have E. coli in their intestines and there is a possibility of contamination of the carcase by spillage of gut contents during slaughtering. This contamination will initially be on the meat surface, but will be distributed throughout the meat if it is minced or ground. This is why steak can be eaten “rare”, since the interior of meat from healthy animals is sterile – all that is required is for the exterior to be cooked to a temperature of about 70 – 75 C. However, hamburger patties are made from ground meat and must therefore be cooked right through to ensure destruction of faecal bacteria that may have been mixed in. Americans tend to eat hamburger cooked less thoroughly than in other countries. The USDA suggests 71.1 C (160 F) for beef burgers. So the real issue is not that hamburgers are at greater risk of contamination, but that undercooking them may allow E. coli to survive.
See Guaranteed safe At what cost (?) October 17, 2007

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