What you hear about most when it comes to E. coli contamination of meat are massive recalls from very large plants. Something goes wrong during the meat processing endeavor and the meat becomes contaminated, or could be contaminated with E. coli bacteria.
Curtis Scott, a long-time inspector for the meat and poultry division of the Indiana board of Animal Health, spends his days on kill floors watching animals being killed and processed for meat. However, he typically visits smaller facilities where only a few to a few dozen animals are killed per day. His role is to inspect and certify that the animals are in good condition and that the meat is worthy of the Indiana State Inspection stamp.
Not all animals going through custom slaughter houses must be inspected. Only those that will be resold through farmer's markets or other venues require state inspection. To earn the state inspection stamp, an inspector must follow the animal all the way to the chilling room as a hanging carcass.
Today there are much fewer problems then there were at one time, Scott says. He still makes routine inspections of the head of the animal, checking lymph glands for signs of infection. He also checks the liver, lungs and heart. Finally, he examines the carcass itself. His goal is to make sure it was a healthy animal, and that as the animal is processed, chances for contamination are minimized.
The biggest threat for beef is contamination with E. coil, a bacterium that can produce a serious illness in humans. Keeping all feces and anything that might carry bacteria from the animal to the carcass out of the loop is part of what Scott looks for.
While it's not required, some custom slaughter houses spray the carcass with an approved acid solution that helps minimize the chance that any bacteria would survive.
Scott also looks for things as minute as a couple of hairs that were missed and not removed when the hide was cut off the animal. Even a couple of hairs can increase the chances for contamination, he says.