E. coli O157:H7 NCBA Factsheet



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What Is E. coli O157:H7?

  • Generic Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria are an essential, but normally harmless component of the digestive tract of healthy animals and people. E. coli O157:H7 is a virulent strain of the family of generic bacteria. It produces large quantities of a potent toxin that adheres to and causes severe damage to the lining of the intestine. E. coli O157:H7 can colonize in the intestines of animals (it does not cause illness in cattle), which could contaminate meat at slaughter.
  • Those most susceptible to severe illness as a result of E. coli O157:H7 are the elderly, the young, and those with compromised immune systems.
  • Typically, E. coli O157:H7-related illnesses occur because the O157:H7 series emits a toxin that can cause hemorrhagic colitis, a disease with symptoms of bloody diarrhea and severe abdominal pain. Approximately 10 percent of these cases in children lead to hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which is the leading cause of acute renal failure in children.
  • HUS may progress to thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP), a central nervous system disease characterized by seizures and coma. Patients with TTP often develop blood clots in the brain, usually resulting in death.

How Many People Get Sick from It?

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s report on the burden of food-borne illness in the United States, published in September 1999, estimates that E. coli O157:H7 causes 73,480 illnesses per year (62,458 food-borne). This surveillance-based estimate puts the number of deaths from E. coli O157:H7 at 61 per year (52 food-borne) — much lower than previous “guesstimates” of 250 to 500 deaths. The CDC estimates that this known pathogen accounts for just 0.5 percent of all food-borne illnesses and 2.9 percent of all food-borne deaths. (Food-borne illnesses come from ingesting contaminated food; nonfood-borne illnesses come from other sources, such as person-to-person contact.)
  • The number of E. coli O157:H7 infections between 1998 and 1999 dropped by 25 percent, declined by 22 percent from 1996 to 1999, and appears to be holding at the same rate of 2.1 cases per 100,000 people, according to preliminary data released in April 2001 by the CDC’s Foodborne Disease Active Surveillance Network, or FoodNet.

What Is the Incidence of E. coli O157:H7 in Ground Beef?

The presence of E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef is very rare. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture began random testing for E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef in October 1994. As of Jan. 25, 2002, FSIS has tested about 48,000 samples, and the incidence rate for E. coli O157:H7 in randomly sampled ground beef remains at about one-fourth of 1 percent (0.28 percent).

How Can I Safely Prepare Beef?

  • Consumers have the power to fight bacteria and to keep food safe from harmful bacteria. It’s as easy as following these four simple steps: clean, cook, chill, and separate (don’t cross-contaminate).
  • Always cook ground beef patties to an internal temperature of 160ºF. When a ground beef patty is cooked to 160ºF throughout, it will be safe and tasty, regardless of color. Color is not a reliable indicator. Use an accurate instant-read thermometer inserted horizontally into the center of the burger. Ground beef is a perishable product. Use or freeze within one or two days of purchase.
  • It’s the surface areas of meat that can be contaminated with E. coli. It’s OK to eat whole muscle cuts —such as steaks and roasts — while they are still pink in the middle. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Beef and Veal Culinary Center, as well as the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, recommend cooking steaks just to medium rare (145°F internal temperature) or medium (160°F internal temperature); do not overcook.
  • Be sure there are plenty of clean utensils and platters. To prevent food-borne illness, don’t use the same platter and utensils for raw and cooked meat and poultry. Harmful bacteria present in raw meat and poultry and their juices can contaminate safely cooked food. Don’t put other foods on platters that have held raw meat or poultry.

What Are Other Risk Factors or Foods for E. coli O157:H7?

  • Contact with farm animals, such as calves and other young ruminant animals, can pose a risk, especially for the elderly, the young, and those with compromised immune systems. In April 2001, the CDC released strategies for petting zoos and other animal venues to reduce risk, such as providing adequate hand-washing stations and strictly separating eating areas from areas where humans and animals are in contact.
  • The E. coli O157:H7 pathogen has triggered food-borne illness outbreaks from consumption of foods as diverse as unpasteurized apple juice, lettuce, alfalfa sprouts, ground beef, and strawberries. Swimming in and drinking contaminated water have also triggered outbreaks, as have improperly handling dirty diapers (not washing hands) from an infected child.
  • While outbreaks attributed to beef tend to grab the headlines, it’s also very important to thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables under cold running tap water to remove any lingering contaminants. The CDC report on surveillance for food-borne disease outbreaks, released in March 2000, showed that the number of cases of food-borne disease in outbreaks attributed to fruits and vegetables have exceeded those of beef every year — by 10-to-1 in 1995.

What Is the Incidence of E. coli O157:H7 in Cattle?

  • A study released by USDA’s Meat Animal Research Center in spring 2000 led to a great deal of confusion. The USDA research says that 83 percent of the cattle studied had been exposed to E. coli O157:H7 at some point in their lives. This does not mean that at any given time the incidence rate of E. coli O157:H7 in cattle is that high. Research studying on-farm factors may hold promise, but to date these studies have been inconclusive. Even the report authors write, “Unfortunately, no effective control methods are currently available for producers to use in reducing prevalence of EHEC (Enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli) O157 in cattle.”
  • In a 1999 study by Colorado State University and reported by the American Meat Institute Foundation, an average of 3.65 percent of cattle headed for slaughter at 12 packing plants were carrying the harmful E. coli O157:H7 bacteria. However, the bacteria were found on less than one-half of 1 percent (0.44 percent) of the fresh carcasses sampled in the study. Further, no E. coli showed up once the carcasses had been subjected to intervention processes in the plant, such as steam, hot water, and organic acid rinses. Checkoff-funded research has helped to develop these interventions, which have been shown to reduce the incidence of bacteria on carcasses by more than 99 percent. NCBA and the cattle industry continue to support research funding for the elimination of this pathogen from the food supply.
  • It’s important to remember that people don’t eat live cattle, they eat beef. And USDA data show the incidence of E. coli O157:H7 in raw ground beef is about one-fourth of 1 percent (0.28 percent).

What Is Being Done about E. coli O157:H7?


The Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) program has been fully implemented as a science-based food safety strategy to reduce the risk of illness caused by bacterial contamination of meat and poultry products. HACCP is a science-based system of inspection in which the industry takes on more responsibility for assuring the safety of product.

HACCP employs more modernized, scientific procedures and critical control points, as opposed to the more outdated carcass-by-carcass manual inspection method. As of Jan. 25, 2000, all processing plants, including the smallest plants, were required to have an HACCP plan implemented.

The results for all pathogen reduction are encouraging. FSIS released a report in April 2001 showing that the prevalence of Salmonella in raw meat and poultry has decreased since the implementation of HACCP in 1998. The report is the first aggregate data on all sizes of plants, including data from very small plants. The new data demonstrate that all categories of product show improvement over baseline studies conducted prior to HACCP implementation.


The beef industry supports new technologies to improve food safety, including irradiation, which won U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for red meat in 1997. The USDA issued the final rule for implementing irradiation of red meat in February 2000. Using low doses of gamma rays, x-rays, or electrons, irradiation has proven effective in destroying food-borne pathogens, including E. coli O157:H7.


  • The beef industry has invested more than $12 million since 1994 in E. coli O157:H7 food safety applied research. Techniques resulting from this research include steam vacuuming beef carcasses, which effectively removes E. coli O157:H7 and other harmful bacteria. “Thermal pasteurization,” a rinse cycle for beef carcasses with 180-degree water and mild organic acid solutions, also reduces pathogens.
  • More than 85 percent of the research projects beef producers have funded with their checkoff dollars have directly and immediately led to implementation of technology and procedures that increase beef safety.
  • Current checkoff-funded E. coli O157 safety research on live cattle centers on developing and testing cattle-cleaning systems and experimenting with cattle feed additives. Beef safety research is working on intervention systems for subprimals and trimmings; finding more statistically valid ways to sample and test beef for E. coli O157:H7; examining the impact of environmental factors such as equipment, water, and air on E. coli and beef products; and reviewing beef safety research on nonintact beef products.
  • In a show of unprecedented commitment by the entire industry, the Beef Industry Food Safety Council was formed in October 1997 to develop industry-wide, science-based strategies to solve the problem of E. coli O157:H7 and other food-borne pathogens in beef. The Council continues to identify, prioritize, and facilitate research activities from farm to table; develop programs to help industry segments operate in today’s business environment; speak with one voice in seeking regulatory and legislative solutions; develop consumer education programs; and develop and implement industry education programs to assist in the transfer of technology into the marketplace. In short, the focus continues to be on prevention at all stages to significantly reduce and possibly eliminate problems. NCBA’s Chuck Schroeder is chairman of the council.
  • Blue Ribbon Task Force was formed in 1993 to aggressively address the E. coli O157:H7 problem. Top scientists from the beef industry, academia, and government developed a “blueprint” of actions from farm to fork. Some accomplishments thus far include development and implementation of HACCP, steam-vacuuming technology, and safe handling labels on consumer packaging.

Safe Handling Labels

All fresh meat and poultry products have carried safe cooking and handling labels since 1993.

Consumer Education

The Partnership for Food Safety’s “Fight BAC!” consumer education campaign is reaching consumers through its Web page (http://www.fightbac.org), thousands of brochures, and other cooperative activities. NCBA is a member of the Partnership for Food Safety, which brings together industry, government, and consumer groups whose goal is to develop consistent and memorable messages about the importance of handling food properly. Consumers have the power to fight bacteria and to keep food safe from harmful bacteria. It’s as easy as following these four simple steps: clean, cook, chill, and separate (don’t cross-contaminate).

See These Resources on the Internet:

NCBA Cattle and Beef Handbook – Food Safety – see “food safety” area of http://www.beef.org/

FSIS Food Safety Focus (Background Information)

FOCUS ON: Beef . . . from Farm to Table

FOCUS ON: Ground Beef

USDA-FSIS Microbiological Results of Raw Ground Beef Products Analyzed for Escherichia coli O157:H7 Calendar Year 2002

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s report on the burden of food-borne illness in the United States, published in September 1999 http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/eid/vol5no5/mead.htm

Preliminary FoodNet Data on the Incidence of Foodborne Illnesses — Selected Sites, United States, 1999

Preliminary FoodNet Data on the Incidence of Foodborne Illnesses — Selected Sites, United States, 2000 http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5013a1.htm

Outbreaks of Escherichia coli O157:H7 Infections Among Children Associated With Farm Visits — Pennsylvania and Washington, 2000 http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5015a5.htm

Incidence of Escherichia coli O157:H7 on Hide Carcass and Trimmings Samples Collected From United States Packing Plants

E. coli O157:H7

January 2002 Factsheet
National Cattleman’s Beef Association
Contact: Christina Pope, Director, Issue Research and Analysis