Keeping your cookout free of E. coli has always been fairly simple: heat your meat sufficiently and you'll kill any bacteria. That is, until now. A group of researchers from the University of Alberta may have discovered a mutant strain of bacteria that could withstand the heat of your grill.
The group of scientists, lead by food biologist Lynn McMullen, were studying the effect of heat on strains of E. coli from meat processing plants when one student made a startling discovery. One strain of bacteria was still present after being heated for 70 minutes at 140 degrees, the temperature at which bacteria typically die in under a minute. The strain even survived past 160 degrees, the USDA-recommended temperature for cooking ground beef.
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Collaborating with Alberta Health Services, McMullen found that some of the bacteria found in past E. coli victims had the same heat-resistant genes as the bacteria his team discovered, according to the Edmonton Journal. "We know that approximately two percent of all the E. coli that are in the databases have the genetics for heat resistance," McMullen says. That could mean a lot more cases of the infection, which causes symptoms like nausea, cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Before you panic and cancel your weekend BBQ, it's important to note that E. coli comes in two varieties: pathogens (which make people sick) and non-pathogens (which spoil meat), which which means even if you come across a rare heat-resistant strain, there's a chance it won't be infectious.
Though researchers haven't yet pinpointed what temperature will kill the heat-resistant E. coli, McMullen and his team say its still a good idea to cook meat to the government-recommended temperature. McMullen's number one piece of advice? "When you're grilling any ground meat, you should be using a thermometer."