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Virginia Cooperative Extension -
 Knowledge for the CommonWealth

Beef Quality Corner

Livestock Update, February 1998

Bill McKinnon, Extension Animal Scientist, Marketing, Virginia Tech

It is fascinating how one little microbe could cause an industry such as the beef business so much grief. The bacteria E. coli 0157:H7 has been major headline news since the Jack in the Box outbreak in 1993. This past year e.coli made front page news with the Hudson Foods hamburger patty contamination and beef demand took another hit. The Japanese, our number one beef export market, became sensitive to food related illness after an E. coli outbreak not related to beef. The result was disappointing beef exports to Japan for the year. The South Koreans found E. coli 0157:H7 contamination in a shipment of beef chuck rolls from a large U.S. packer during late 1997. The issue was widely publicized by the Koreans, our third largest beef export market, and beef sales backed off. The 0157:H7 organism continues to bring the issue of beef safety to the spotlight and adversely impact beef demand.

The Escherichia coli or E. coli group of bacteria is one of the most common organisms. E. coli is commonly found in the digestive tract of most animals. Most E. coli strains cause no harm to human health.

The E. coli 0157:H7 strain was first identified in 1982. The 0157:H7 strain can cause severe foodborne illness. Symptoms can include bloody diarrhea and severe abdominal pain. The young, older individuals and those with compromised immune systems can be particularly susceptible to severe symptoms including kidney failure.

It seems as though beef has taken most of the black eye in media reports regarding E. coli outbreaks. Data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention demonstrates that illnesses from E. coli 0157:H7 that can be traced back to beef as the source of contamination are smaller than many realize as indicated in the table below. Other sources for infection include apple juice and cider, person-to person transfer in schools and day care centers, lettuce, alfalfa sprouts, strawberries, and swimming.

Reported Cases of Illness from E. coli 0157:H7
and Number Attributed to Beef

of Cases
Number Traced
to Beef as Source
Percent Traced
to Beef as Source
1994 543 121 23%
1995 455 98 22%
1996 488 2 4%

The beef industry has been aggressive in addressing the E. coli 0157:H7 situation. In 1993 the industry created a Blue Ribbon Task Force to examine the problem. Some of the strategies devised include steam vacuuming of carcasses to remove contamination and the use of safe handling labels on retail packaging. The Beef Industry Food Safety Council was formed in October, 1997 to develop industry-wide strategies to solve the problem of foodborne pathogens in beef.

The beef industry recently received approval from FDA to utilize radiation to pasteurize beef. The technique has proven effective in destroying harmful pathogens including E. coli 0157:H7 without adversely affecting flavor or texture. It remains to be seen if the industry will adopt irradiation on a broad scale. The pork and poultry industries have had approval to use irradiation for some time and yet have made minimal use of the technology. The concern that consumers fail to understand food irradiation seems to explain the reluctance to institute this form of pasteurization. No, folks who eat irradiated beef will not grow two heads or glow in the dark.

Study is underway across the country to examine the role that various feeding and management practices might play in increasing the incidence of E. coli 0157:H7. Early work suggests that cattle stress may be involved.

Solving the E. coli 0157:H7 problem will require a comprehensive approach across the industry, from farm and ranch to the consumer. As the industry continues to lose meat dollar market share, the beef safety issue continues to grow in its impact upon the industry. All involved in the industry must remember that safe beef is the ultimate product, not cattle.

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