E. coli O157:H7 reclaimed the spotlight from E. coli O104:H4 in France last week when eight children were hospitalized with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) in Lille after consuming contaminated hamburgers.

The children are between 18 months and 8 years old. One child has been released from hospital; the others are described as being in stable condition and expected to improve, according to a report in this morning’s Nord éclair.

One of the eight children – a two-year old boy from l’Oise – is in a coma as a result of renal complications from his infection. He is reported to be improving slightly and, though remaining unconscious, is slightly more reactive than before. Three of the children are still undergoing kidney dialysis; one of them has begun to recover some kidney function – an encouraging sign, according to Dr. Michel Foulard of CHU de Lille. The other three children are recovering, and should be released from hospital at the beginning of next week.

A ninth child – a 7-year-old girl – was admitted to hospital in Jeanne de Flandre on Friday. She is described as suffering from moderate kidney insufficiency, but has not needed dialysis. According to the child’s mother, the girl did not eat any of the implicated hamburger. Lab tests are in progress to determine whether she is infected with the outbreak strain or with a different pathogen.

Epidemiological evidence, based on interviews of the children’s parents, implicated a specific brand of hamburger patties as the source of the infections. The frozen Steak Country chez Lidl hamburger patties were purchased from stores of the Lidl supermarket chain in the north of France. On June 15th, SEB – the manufacturer of the implicated product – recalled three date codes (Lot #10/05/11, 11/05/11, and 12/05/11)  – more than 14.7 tonnes of frozen meats. The recalled meat was shipped to centers in Steenvoord (11.6 tonnes), Rungis (1.7 tonnes) Ludres (576 kg) and Yffiniac (240 kg) for distribution to Lidl stores in the following départements of France: 22, 25, 29, 35, 45, 51, 52, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 62, 70, 72, 75, 76, 77 and 78.

According to SEB, the beef for the burgers originated in France, Germany and the Netherlands. Belgian authorities have confirmed that none of the beef came from Belgium, and none of the frozen hamburger patties were distributed to Belgium. Some of the implicated hamburgers may have been shipped to Italy. The Italian Ministry of Health ordered the seizure of five tons of Steak Country frozen hamburger patties and meatballs from the Lidl distribution center in Verona province last week.

This outbreak is small, when compared to the German E. coli O104:H4 outbreak, and of relatively short duration. The prompt initial reporting by local health authorities of a cluster of children suffering from HUS – compared to the slow reporting that apparently took place in Germany – and the swift recall announced by SEB and Lidl France, were instrumental in forestalling a larger outbreak.

With all of the attention that has been focussed on contaminated fresh produce in recent months, it’s easy to forget the ongoing risk represented by eating undercooked meat and poultry – and of cross-contamination in the kitchen or at the outdoor barbecue.

When eating out, order your hamburgers “well-done”. When cooking in or on the grill, don’t rely on subjective tests such as the color of the meat. Use a meat thermometer to verify that your beef, pork, fish, lamb or poultry has reached an internal temperature of 160ºF for ground meats or 145ºF for intact cuts.

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