E. Coli Outbreak Traced To Restaurant Burgers, 6 hospitalized

Six people have been hospitalized in an E. coli outbreak traced to burgers consumed in restaurants in four states.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the burgers contained tainted meat from Wolverine Packing Co., in Detroit, which announced a recall of 1.8 million pounds of ground beef on Monday. The agency has identified 11 sickened in Massachusetts (1), Michigan (5), Missouri (1) and Ohio (4).

Health officials have interviewed 10 people. All of them reported eating burgers in restaurants before getting sick. The CDC has not identified the restaurants nor released any details about cooking methods. Harmful strains of E. coli -- in this case E. coli O157:H7 -- are killed when heated to 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

E. coli O157:H7 first emerged as a major threat in 1982 in Oregon and Michigan when nearly 50 were sickened after eating burgers at McDonald's. Then in 1993, four children died and more than 600 were sickened after consuming undercooked burgers at Jack-in-the-Box restaurants in Washington, Idaho, California and Nevada.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture banned E. coli O157:H7 from ground beef in 1994, forcing industry to test for the bacteria and making sales illegal.

That stemmed outbreaks -- and large-scale recalls. According to Bill Marler, a prominent food safety litigator in Seattle, the last major recall of ground beef over E. coli was in 2008, when public health officials in Michigan and Ohio traced an outbreak to ground beef purchased at Kroger stores. That led to a recall of nearly 7 million pounds of meat by Nebraska Beef.

In other E. coli outbreaks:

In 1997, Hudson Foods Co. recalled 25 million pounds of ground beef;

In 2007, Topps Meat Co. recalled nearly 22 million pounds of patties;

In 2002, ConAgra Foods pulled nearly 20 million pounds of ground beef.

Under the Because of the repeated outbreaks, some fast food restaurants now only serve burgers that are cooked to 160 degrees. Ben Chapman, assistant professor of food safety at North Carolina State University, said a study of restaurants shows that ordering a burger medium-well or even well-done is no guarantee of safety.

Under the federal Food Code, hamburgers are supposed to be cooked to 155 degrees for 15 seconds to kill harmful bacteria. Restaurants should know that, Marler said.

"In 2014, it's ridiculous that restaurants would put themselves at risk to cook undercooked hamburgers," Marler said. When they cook hamburgers, they become a manufacturer. That means they're liable under the law."

The Food Code is not mandatory, but consists of guidelines.