6.5 million pounds of contaminated beef is being yanked from the US market to stop a salmonella outbreak

Here’s the beef.
Here’s the beef.
Image: Reuters/Dominic Ebenbichler
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An Arizona-based meat-processing company is recalling more than 6.5 million pounds of beef from across 16 states after a government investigation raised fears that the meat may be contaminated with salmonella.

A statement released by US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) shows JBS Tolleson is asking retailers to return raw beef items—mostly ground beef—packaged between July 26 and Sept. 7. An epidemiological investigation by the FSIS found 57 people from 16 states who had have suffered illness after eating beef products for which JBS Tolleson was the supplier. The number of actual victims is likely much higher than that, as many foodborne illnesses go typically go unreported.

Food contaminated with salmonella can often lead to salmonellosis, a common bacterial foodborne illness. Its effects can be serious, especially for young children, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems. Salmonellosis usually last about a week and is marked by diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever.

Salmonella contamination is most often associated with animal products, such as eggs, meat, and poultry. But the bacteria can also be found on fruits and vegetables. It usually gets to food products when those products come into contact with animal feces or human workers carrying the bacteria. The number of salmonellosis outbreaks reported in the US has increased since 1998 (the year for which the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began making its data public).

While that increase might seem like bad news, it’s actually the opposite. Through technological advances, including genome-sequencing tests that allow government health officials to decode the DNA of foodborne bacteria, investigators are now able to more quickly track down issues with food before they spread and potentially harm more people. It’s estimated that more than 48 million Americans fall ill to foodborne pathogens every year, with about 3,000 of those ending up dead.

By identifying the genetic makeup of bacteria that have made people sick, it’s easier to find people who test positive for the same infection in different states. When the government is able to connect those dots, it can catch foodborne pathogens faster. That means more news headlines about product recalls will likely pop up on people’s radars, but it also means the food safety system is working.