Search :
Fall 1993

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Fall 93 > Article

Grilling the Suspect in Food-Related Illness
by Rosann Kent

The scenario mirrors a Stephen King horror flick: A germ hidden in the nation's meat supply randomly kills unsuspecting diners, especially the young, sick and elderly.

Who will intervene?

Michael Doyle already has. The food scientist's research on E. coli bacteria has turned a lot of heads in the food industry, including giants like McDonalds, and made them take a second look at how they cook their burgers.

The point is to destroy Escherichia coli, a bacterium which lives in the intestinal tracts of cattle and can contaminate ground beef during slaughter. One strain of E. coli, labeled O157:H7, claimed the lives of more than 300 people and induced illness in thousands more last year, according to estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

When three children died after eating hamburgers from a Jack-In-The-Box restaurant in Washington state last year, Doyle was called into the case.

Working with USDA scientists, the UGA food science department head proved a point he'd been making for years: Hamburger meat must be cooked to a temperature of 155o Fahrenheit to kill the potentially lethal bacterium.

In the Jack-In-The-Box case, "the pathogen was present in populations of less than 100 E. coli per gram in all samples tested," a very minute amount, said Doyle, who also directs the Center for Food Safety and Quality Enhancement at the UGA Experiment Station in Griffin, Ga.

But, he stressed, proper cooking would have prevented the food-borne illness.

"It turns out that the restaurant was cooking at or under the government- recommended temperature of 140 degrees," he said.

After that incident, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration raised the recommended cooking temperature to 155o F for restaurant-cooked hamburgers -- a benchmark Doyle had suggested to colleagues three years ago.

Recently, the USDA recommended even higher cooking temperatures: 157o for restaurants and 160o for the home.

Doyle has conducted several studies for McDonalds to find out how much time and temperature is required to kill the organisms on their particular patties.

And he's also developed a new test that will enable food processors to detect the presence of the O157:H7 strain in less than 24 hours. Previously, the test took about a week.

Although Doyle continues to work on more tests to improve detection of E. coli in raw meat -- another one is scheduled to be released within two years -- he points out the new tests are only an interim step in solving the problems of food poisonings from meat.

"It's just not practical to test the huge number of meat samples necessary to be reasonably sure the bacteria isn't present," he said.

So he also is exploring early detection methods to prevent cross- contamination of pathogen-free meat at the slaughterhouse.

"The best solution is to identify the cattle that carry the E. coli 0157:H7 strain before they are slaughtered and then process meat from these cattle only into fully cooked meat products," Doyle said.

He also is helping the USDA conduct a 15-state survey to determine how widespread the 0157:H7 strain is in dairy cattle.

"Out of 12 herds that were previously identified as free of E. coli, five were found to be E. coli positive," he said. "These results suggest that this pathogen may be more prevalent in dairy herds than previously recognized."

Last spring, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy invited Doyle to submit a proposal to develop a vaccine to protect cattle from carrying E. coli O157:H7.

"Preliminary research has identified a specific antigen that has potential for vaccine development," Doyle said. The proposal was approved and studies are underway.

But in the meantime, Doyle said, consumers need to "assume raw ground beef has E. coli O157:H7 and take precautions."

"You should always cook products with raw ground meat until the juice runs clear," he said. "You also need to prevent cross contamination with cold foods. And by all means, take hand washing seriously."

For more information e-mail mdoyle@cfs.griffin.peachnet.edu

Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
For comments or for information please e-mail the editor: rcomm@uga.edu
To contact the webmaster please email: ovprweb@uga.edu