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The Essential Summer BBQ Accessory

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Along with ketchup, pickles, and buns, backyard barbecuers should be armed with something else this grilling season: a meat thermometer. Experts say it's the only sure way to prevent a potential food poisoning disaster.

"The only safe hamburger is one cooked to 160 degrees," says Nancy Donley, president of the nonprofit Safe Tables Our Priority, a food-safety advocacy group. "Research has shown color is not a reliable indicator."

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Donley learned about food safety in the hardest way possible. Seven years ago, her son Alex ate a contaminated hamburger and died. He was just 6. "I didn't have a clue -- I really didn't -- that food could be a carrier of bacteria," she says.

What killed Alex was infection with the bacterium E. coli. It can cause a severe complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).

"HUS can come from other causes, but 75% of it is related to food poisoning; most of it to [E. coli]," says Edward Traceman, MD, who treated Alex Donley. "The problem isn't the bacteria itself, but the toxin released by the bacteria."

Traceman says HUS causes one main symptom in the body -- blood clots -- that leads to numerous complications, such as kidney failure. "You don't use antibiotics to treat it. What you try to do is clean the toxin from the body, by washing the blood, basically .... You try to weather the storm."

In fact, a study by researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle indicated that, in children infected with E. coli, antibiotics could actually bring on HUS.

Most patients shake off E. coli poisoning within six weeks, Traceman says, but about 5% never do.

What worries Donley is that the E. coli situation may not have improved much, despite a number of well-publicized cases, including a 1993 outbreak linked to undercooked burgers from Jack in the Box restaurants and a spate of 1996 cases linked to Odwalla brand fruit juice.

The good news is that cases of food-borne bacterial illnesses have dropped 23% since 1996, according to the CDC. The four major bacterial food-borne illnesses -- campylobacter, salmonella, listeria, and E. coli -- dropped 21% in the past six years. Campylobacter infections dropped 27%, infections from listeria fell 35%, and salmonella infections decreased by 15%. E. coli infections dropped 21%, but all of that decline occurred since 2000.

Donley says that about half the cattle that come in for slaughter have some exposure to E. coli, and that ground meat samples tested by the federal government are turning up higher amounts of bacteria than before -- although this may be because of better testing.

"The slaughterhouse market is relatively unchanged since Sinclair Lewis wrote The Jungle," says Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who has represented victims of some of the most notorious food poisoning cases of the last decade, including the Jack in the Box and Odwalla cases. He holds this opinion despite the fact that some plants have adopted new Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) quality-control procedures to keep contamination down.

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