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USDA Backs Thermometers for Beef

January 7, 1999

BETHESDA, Md. (AP) _ As part of its war against the deadly E. coli bacteria, the U.S. Department of Agriculture teamed up Thursday with supermarket chains across the country to convince consumers to use thermometers when cooking ground beef.

``Thermometer use is the most reliable method consumers have for ensuring that meat and poultry have reached a temperature sufficient enough to kill disease-causing organisms,″ said Catherine Woteki, USDA undersecretary for food safety, at a news conference at a Giant supermarket in the suburbs of Washington D.C.

``Cooks can’t rely on color alone to tell if meat is done,″ she warned, explaining spices, freezing and the age of the meat source can darken beef.

Wegmans in New York and Arizona-based Bashas’ supermarkets also are taking part in the public awareness campaign.

The grocers will label all packages of ground beef with a warning to consumers to cook to 160 degrees. They also are selling new disposable and digital thermometers, designed specifically for chopped meat.

But shoppers at Giant in Bethesda responded coolly to the new gadgets.

``I don’t know how to use one. I don’t need it,″ George Carr said.

Deborah Tepper said she doubted she would start using thermometers to cook burgers or meatloaf, despite their benefits. ``It’s probably necessary, but I just wouldn’t buy it,″ she said.

A World Bank employee from Argentina also passed on the thermometers. ``When I came to this country I sort of became a vegetarian, because the meat here is not as good and is too expensive,″ Fabiana Feld said.

Still, Giant officials were optimistic they could change minds.

``It’s still early,″ said Giant Vice President Odonna Mathews, noting concerns about their health would lead consumers to the thermometers.

Bessie Berry, who runs the USDA’s meat and poultry telephone hotline, agreed. She estimated the hotline gets 150 calls on any given day from people with questions about beef safety.

Ground beef contaminated with E. coli bacteria is a major source of food poisoning.

In November meatpacker IBP in West Virginia recalled 500,000 pounds beef after a distributor detected the presence of E. coli on a beef sample.

Symptoms of E. coli poisoning include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and severe abdominal cramping. The very young, the elderly and persons with compromised immune systems are the most susceptible to the illness.

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