USDA issues public health alert for E. coli in ground beef

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry and egg products, issued a public health alert for possible ground beef contamination. Here’s everything you need to know.

Scott Miller, Staff writer

April 25, 2024

3 Min Read
Ground beef

At a Glance

  • E. coli O157:H7, a potentially deadly bacterium, was found in specific ground beef products.
  • The products have a “Use/Freeze by” date of April 22 and an establishment number of “EST. 960A.”
  • A public health alert is not a recall, which may not be necessary if the product is already out of circulation.

Ill tidings for Taco Tuesday lovers everywhere: On April 20, Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the branch of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) responsible for, you guessed it, inspecting food products for safety, issued a public health alert for raw ground beef products possibly contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. E. coli is a potentially deadly bacterium that causes dehydration, abdominal cramps and other symptoms an average of three to four days after exposure. 

The ground beef products, packaged on March 28 with a “Use/Freeze by” date of April 22, were shipped to retail and food service locations all over the country before the manufacturer, Greater Omaha Packing Co., identified the possible contamination. It reportedly held a batch that tested positive for E. coli, then accidentally used a portion of that beef in products that were distributed. A list of those products can be found on the FSIS website and bear establishment number “EST. 960A.” 

According to an FSIS representative, when the agency conducts a recall or, in this case, a public health alert, the company that triggered the alert must provide documentation that proves the product is already on hold or no longer in commerce. If it can’t supply that information, FSIS will move forward with a recall.  

This incident is not a recall, although it’s worth nothing that Greater Omaha Packing Co. recalled 295,236 pounds of raw beef in 2021 due to the same type of contamination, despite claiming “an uncompromising commitment to quality” on its website. Also keep in mind that USDA put its stamp of inspection approval on these products, which can be seen in the label photographs mandated by the public health alert process

Public health alerts simply notify anyone who may have bought the affected products, but an alert may be issued along with a recall for some incidents. In this case, the affected products have already been removed from production but may still be present in consumers’ homes. Hence, the public health alert. 

“[Public health alerts] inform the public of specific public health risks posed by products in commerce or in the possession of end consumers when there is no product recall or when available product has already been recovered from commerce and controlled prior to FSIS notification or engagement but may still pose a risk to consumers at their homes,” USDA states in its FSIS directive. “FSIS typically becomes aware of these situations from the findings of a foodborne illness investigation conducted by, or reported to, [Office of Public Health Science’s] Applied Epidemiology Staff.” 

After that, the Emergency Management Committee (EMC) may be activated to decide whether FSIS should issue a public health alert. If FSIS issues a public health alert, it must contain: 

  1. The identity of the company that manufactured the product. 

  2. A clear description of the product, plus any identifying markings or codes. 

  3. The reason the product is adulterated and the risks of consuming it. 

  4. Electronic photos of the product labels.  

  5. Instructions for properly handling the product. 

  6. Contact information for the company that produced the product, if possible. 

USDA and FSIS ensure that meat, poultry and egg products are safe and properly labeled. All other food products are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and FDA’s process for issuing recalls and alerts may differ. 

About the Author(s)

Scott Miller

Staff writer, Food & Beverage Insider

Scott Miller brings two decades of experience as a writer, editor, and communications specialist to Food & Beverage Insider. He’s done a little of everything, from walking a beat as a freelance journalist to taking the Big Red Pen to massive technical volumes. He even ran a professional brewing industry website for several years, leveling up content delivery during an era when everyone had a blog.

Since starting at Food & Beverage Insider, he’s written pieces on the price of greenwashing (and how to avoid it), debunked studies that served little to no purpose (other than upsetting the public) and explained the benefits of caffeine alternatives, along with various other stories on trends and events.

Scott is particularly interested in how science, technology and industry are converging to answer tomorrow’s big questions about food insecurity, climate change and more.

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