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Michael Moss on the Surge of E. Coli Outbreaks

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New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss, who wrote the piece on unsafe hamburger meat in Sunday's Times and was our guest in today's first hour, sends us a followup note.

Since 2002, E. coli outbreaks in the U.S. were on the decline, but since 2007, the number of incidents has begun to rise again. The reasons aren’t entirely clear, but Moss says there are four main theories food experts and manufacturers are considering:

There have been 16 outbreaks of the virulent strain of E. coli known as 0157:H7 in hamburger since 2007 — nearly triple the rate of outbreaks in the previous three years.

Just what has caused this apparent surge remains unclear. Public health officials say they are getting better at tracing individual cases of illness to the responsible product, and so some of the increase may be due to their better tracking. Note that these 16 outbreaks are only the known cases, traced back to hamburger makers. Most of the estimated 70,000 people who fall ill from E. coli each year are not traced back to their source, while at the same time E. coli has also had outbreaks in spinach and processed foods.

There are several other possible explanations for the surge in hamburger related outbreaks, industry and government officials say. One, that global warming may somehow be creating a better environment for E. coli to grow and spread. Two, that a change in the type of corn fed to cattle may increase the presence of E. coli in their digestive tracks. And three, that immigration raids in the meat industry have caused talented workers to return to Mexico or seek other work, causing a drain of talent in slaughtering, where it can take a worker a year or more to learn the safest techniques for removing a hide to avoid contaminating the meat.
--Michael Moss

This program aired on October 7, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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