No panic for hamburger lovers

August 26, 1997


Staff Writer

With two small children to feed, Hagerstown mother Tanya VanReenen said she finds herself buying a lot of ground beef.

Last week's massive recall of Hudson Foods frozen hamburger patties from a batch contaminated with a deadly strain of E. coli bacteria isn't going to change that, said VanReenen, 22, during a shopping trip to County Market in Hagerstown on Tuesday.

But it will curb her preference for fixing her own burgers rare, she said.

"It's not worth the risk," said VanReenen, who has always made sure to thoroughly cook meat for her family.

Van Reenen has the right attitude, say local health officials, who say local hamburger eaters have no reason to panic as long as they follow some simple precautions.

Even hamburger tainted with E. coli bacteria can be made safe if cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees, said Washington County Health Officer Dr. Robert Parker.


"The main problem is for people who like to have their hamburgers rare," Parker said. "Cook it well, then you don't have to worry about it."

Shoppers don't seem to be too worried, according to local grocers, who reported no drop in hamburger sales since the recall was announced last Friday.

"I haven't seen a drop in poundage of any types of grinds," said Jim Robbins, manager of the Food Lion store on East Wilson Boulevard.

The recall hasn't hurt ground beef sales at County Market store on West Hillcrest Road, said meat manager Robert Corob, who expects his store will sell 10,000 pounds of hamburger over Labor Day weekend.

Customers have asked about the store's frozen hamburger patties, which are not supplied by Hudson Foods, Corob said.

The Columbus, Neb., company had to recall 25 million pounds of hamburger after the bacteria was discovered in some of its products.

The recall caused one major Hudson customer, Burger King, to stop serving hamburgers at several hundreds of its Midwest stores until Sunday.

Local Burger King managers referred questions to corporate representatives, who did not return calls on Tuesday.

Burger King's dilemma hasn't affected hamburger sales at the Burger Park USA on Frederick Street, said general manager John Claggett.

"It's not a concern here," said Claggett, who said he learned safe meat handling during 5 1/2 years working for McDonald's.

Maryland restaurants have to abide by a strict standard for hamburger cooking temperature, which has to be at least 155 degrees, or well done, said Washington County Health Department Sanitarian Kent Hedges.

Hamburger is more susceptible to E. coli contamination than whole cuts of meat because of the way it is processed - any bacteria on the meat's surface is spread throughout the batch during grinding, Hedges said.

In addition to proper cooking practices, people need to guard against cross-contamination by thoroughly washing any meat handling surface with soap and water, then rinsing it with a chlorine bleach solution, he said.

It's often difficult to detect isolated cases of E. coli poisoning, which can cause no more than mild diarrhea, Parker said.

However, it can be deadly, leading to kidney failure, particularly among children, he said.

Symptoms of this strain of E. coli poisoning range from mild diarrhea, with possible cramps and a low-grade fever, to severe diarrhea, with possible blood in the stool, Parker said.

Victims experience severe symptoms before the onset of kidney failure, he said.

Parker said he isn't aware of any confirmed cases of E. coli poisoning in Washington County.

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