One federal inspector calls it the “E. coli loophole.” Another says, “Nobody would buy it if they knew.”

The officials are referring to the little-discussed fact that the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has deemed it acceptable for meat companies to cook and sell meat on which E. coli, a bacteria that can sicken and even kill humans, is found during processing.

The “E. coli loophole” affects millions of pounds of beef each year that test positive for the presence of E. coli O157:H7, a virulent strain of the bacteria.

The agency allows companies to put this E. coli-positive meat in a special category: “cook only.” Cooking the meat, the USDA and producers say, destroys the bacteria and makes it safe to eat as precooked hamburgers, meat loaf, crumbled taco meat and other products.

Some USDA inspectors say the “cook-only” practice means higher-than-appropriate levels of E. coli are tolerated in packing plants, raising the chance that clean meat will become contaminated. They say the “cook-only” practice is part of the reason for this year’s sudden rise in incidents of E. coli contamination.

“All the product that is E. coli positive, they put a ‘cooking-only’ tag on it,” said one inspector, who like other federal inspectors interviewed, asked to remain anonymous for fear they would lose their jobs. “They [companies] will test, and everything that’s positive, they slap that label on.” Read the rest of this entry »