Avoiding foodborne illnesses at restaurants and while cooking at home is tough enough for meat-eaters, but this week, a major US food company had to recall more than 120,000 pounds of ground beef products due to the fact that they were potentially contaminated with E. coli bacteria. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) revealed that ground beef was produced in New Jersey-based facilities and distributed by Lakeside Refrigerated Services.

The FSIS released the warning that 120,872 pounds of beef products packaged and manufactured from February 1 through April 8 held the risk of spreading the foodborne illness. The beef brands implicated include Nature’s Reserve, Marketside Butcher, and Thomas Farms. The labeled products will read “EST. 46841,” according to the FSIS. Even freezing the meat would not be enough to kill the bacteria, which can withstand cold temperatures, regulators warned. So check your meat, or better yet, ditch the beef altogether.

“FSIS is concerned that some products may be in consumers’ refrigerators or freezers,” the report reads. “Consumers who have purchased these products are urged not to consume them. These products should be thrown away or returned to the place of purchase.”

E. coli (Escherichia coli) is a disease spread by ingesting food or water contaminated by human or animal waste, causing severe stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, and a variety of other symptoms. The FSIS revealed that this strain of E. coli is particularly difficult to identify. Though there have been no confirmed cases of E. Coli from these products, the only safe method to avoid contamination is to dispose of the beef products.

E. Coli contamination is not an uncommon occurrence within the beef industry. The CDC released data that presumed that nearly 25 billion pounds of beef are consumed in the United States each year, increasing the risk of food-borne illnesses (typically spiking in July). Each year, E. coli causes approximately 265,00 illnesses and about 100 deaths. In the CDC’s last 10-year report on food-borne illnesses, the organization recorded 75 outbreaks associated with the beef between 2009 and 2013 – 35 percent of which were caused by E. coli.

If you’re throwing away your beef products, check out The Beet’s section on Meat Alternatives to find something safer and equally delicious to purchase.

How Can You Tell if Your Food Has E. Coli?

The most dangerous characteristic of E. coli is that its virtually untraceable. So, how can you best avoid E. coli contamination? Cooking contaminated ground meat to 160 degrees F will kill E. coli, but experts suggest that there is no reason to make the change because it is not a guaranteed method to avoid infection. Most importantly, experts tell people to check the food safety alerts and check the labels on their foods. But, the safest way to cut down the risk of food-borne illness infection is to adopt a plant-based diet.

“If you have any of the recalled beef in your refrigerator or freezer, throw it out,” Food Safety and Research Director at Consumer Reports James E. Rogers, Ph.D., said. “Meat that’s contaminated with E. coli won’t have a specific smell or look to it. So the best bet is to get rid of it.”

By cutting down on meat and dairy consumption, you can cut two of the biggest risks for E. coli contamination. The most common foods associated with E. Coli contamination are ground beef, unpasteurized milk, and fresh produce including spinach and lettuce. But disease risk factors have become increasingly problematic across the entire animal agriculture industry.

This February, The New York Times teamed up with Mercy for Animals to release a full-scale exposé concerning the dangerous conditions of the poultry industry. The documentary highlighted the animal cruelty in factory farms, but more shockingly, emphasized the health risks posed to American consumers. The documentary revealed chickens in poor health and pumped with hormones meant to be processed and sold to customers. The Life of Chickens documentary stated that these unhealthy conditions could lead to disease outbreaks in the future.

Do you know where your meat comes from?

Between E. coli outbreaks and unsanitary poultry farms, the mystery behind meat production only continues to unfold. This February, the nonprofit organization Farm Aid revealed that meat labels often mislead American consumers, claiming that the products are falsely labeled “Made in America.” Beef products can earn the “Made in America” label by simply being repackaged in state lines, but the beef itself was raised and slaughtered overseas.

Farm Aid revealed the information in part of a campaign to increase the transparency of the beef industry. Senators and organizations are attempting to pass The American Beef Labelling Act to hold the industry accountable. Transparency for shoppers is extremely important, especially in light of the recent foodborne illness outbreak. Needing another reason to avoid meat products? The meat and dairy industries' misinformation provides no help to consumers.

"Transparency in labeling benefits both producers and consumers," the bill's co-sponsor Sen. John Thune (R-SD) said. "Unfortunately, the current beef labeling system in this country allows imported beef that is neither born nor raised in the United States but simply finished here, to be labeled as a product of the USA. This process is unfair to cattle producers and misleading to consumers. When you see a 'product of the USA' label on the grocery store shelf, it should mean just that."

For more plant-based happenings, visit The Beet's News articles.

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