Raw beef poisoning

Four people, including two young boys, have died and nearly 40 other people have been hospitalized for food poisoning after eating at six restaurants in Kanagawa, Toyama and Fukui prefectures. More than 20 of those hospitalized are in serious condition, some suffering from kidney dysfunction.

The restaurants are part of a Korean-style barbecue restaurant chain headquartered in Kanazawa. It is believed that shredded raw beef known as yukke caused the poisoning.

A type of colon bacilli, O111, which causes bleeding from intestines, has been found in some of the victims. They visited the restaurants during the period of April 17-26.

The incident has damaged people’s trust in food safety. Raw beef is popular with some customers. Strangely enough, though, no records have turned up of the nation’s slaughterhouses shipping beef designated for eating raw since fiscal 2008.

The restaurant chain says it received email from the wholesaler in May 2009 saying it was going to send a beef sample suitable for yukke and that “trimming” — scraping off surface meat to prevent food poisoning — was unnecessary.

The wholesaler says it did not send beef intended for eating raw. It is regrettable that the two parties are blaming each other. Clearly neither party was careful enough about keeping hygienic standards high.

The restaurant chain admits that it did not trim the meat or carry out bacteriological examinations. The chain also had a questionable practice of serving the same raw meat for two consecutive days if some remained unsold.

The wholesaler used the same knives and chopping boards for cutting ordinary meat and internal organs. The health ministry has detailed standards for preparing raw meat for consumption. But they provide no punishment for violations and it is unclear to what extent restaurants follow standards.

The ministry should quickly work out penalties and set up a system to closely examine the whole process for preparing meat. Consumers should keep in mind that fresh meat can be contaminated with deadly colon bacilli.