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Profit-Obsessed Meat Companies Keep Poisoning Consumers

THE AGRIBUSINESS EXAMINER

January 5, 2003, Issue #213

Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness From a Public Interest Perspective EDITOR\PUBLISHER; A.V. Krebs

CALIFORNIA HEALTH OFFICIALS REPEATEDLY DENIED INFORMATION BY CONAGRA ON LOCATION OF TAINTED MEAT DAVID MIGOYA, DENVER POST:

ConAgra officials rebuffed repeated efforts this summer by California health investigators to locate E. coli-tainted meat suspected of making people sick, recently released documents show. But a spokesman for the Greeley slaughterhouse, now known as Swift & Co., said . . . that it was California that goofed by not returning the company's telephone calls offering help.

The problem occurred during one of the nation's largest meat recalls ever and in the face of public promises by ConAgra to tell health departments nationwide where it shipped nearly 19 million pounds of beef that later was recalled, say nearly 300 pages of health department e-mails obtained by The Denver Post through California's open-records laws. California Department of Health Services officials said in the internal e-mails that ConAgra's refusal to disclose where it distributed nearly 50 tons of recalled beef in the state "may further endanger California consumers." "This blatant disregard for a request from a public health agency is unacceptable and may have jeopardized the health of (California) citizens," Jim Waddell, acting chief of the agency's food and drug branch, wrote health services director Richard Rodriguez on September 10, eight weeks after the state's initial request. Consumer safety groups say the problem raises new concerns about the recall system and how firms decide whether information is kept from the public and health investigators. California had four illnesses linked to the recalled meat. ConAgra provided It's confidential customer list to Colorado and other states.

The e-mails detail nearly three months of frustrated efforts by California to obtain ConAgra's distribution list --- how calls to the company sometimes were not returned, letters went unanswered and voice-mails were ignored. Waddell said . . . that California still has not received the list. In addition to determining whether recalled meat may have caused illnesses, officials would have used the information to ensure grocers had pulled the beef from store shelves. Swift spokesman Jim Herlihy said ConAgra's consultant, Melvin Kramer, told him he twice --- on August 23 and August 28 --- left telephone messages with California health officials with the intention of giving them the list. California officials said they are unaware of any messages from ConAgra. "We've been prepared to give them the information about the expanded recall all along," Herlihy said. "We will be doing that shortly."

California records show only that Kramer faxed a request to health officials there on August 29 for information about E. coli-related illnesses the state was tracking. "I find this request and the timing of it particularly interesting in light of the firm's steadfast refusal to cooperate with our investigation," Dr. Jeff Farrar of the California health agency's emergency response unit wrote to Waddell in an e-mail about Kramer's fax. The e-mails show ConAgra provided the name of a single distributor in Southern California to Los Angeles County health officials shortly after it recalled about 354,000 pounds of E. coli-contaminated meat June 30. But state officials never got similar information from the company, even after the recall was expanded on July 19 to nearly 19 million pounds of beef. The meat was blamed for 47 illnesses in 23 states --- 17 in Colorado --- and one death in Ohio.

"If true, this is unbelievable and inexcusable conduct by ConAgra," said U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who has demanded answers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture about how it handled the recall. California's assertion that ConAgra wouldn't help the state track down tainted meat would mean the company "put their corporate interest over the safety of their customers," said Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House government reform committee. Following public pressure, ConAgra in mid-August said it would voluntarily provide its distribution list to states with confirmed E. coli cases. The USDA couldn't make public the company's customer list because it is considered a protected business secret.

Farrar first asked for ConAgra's customer list on July 18, a day before the expanded recall, but a company official refused the request, the e-mails show. Consumer groups want an overhaul of the USDA's recall system. "I fear that recalls are moving into the direction of more secrecy," said Carol Tucker Foreman of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America. Firms such as Swift voluntarily recall meat and are not required to publicly disclose the names of businesses that got the meat. Under a law that went into effect August 1, the USDA will provide the distribution lists to those states with open-records laws that ensure the lists are not made public. Disclosure under the USDA's new rule doesn't include a wholesaler's customers, who purchase meat and resell it.

That means that unless a company volunteers the information, consumers and health officials still have no idea whether meat in a home freezer may be subject to a recall since ground beef often is mixed and repacked several times under different names before it is purchased. "Once (meat) is implicated in a recall and there is a public health risk, companies should forfeit the privacy of their customer information," said Foreman, the USDA's food safety director under Presidents Carter and Reagan.

SWIFT & CO. PACKINGHOUSE WORKERS CHARGE THAT OBSESSION WITH SPEED ENDANGERS CONSUMERS, WORKERS MICHAEL RILEY, DENVER POST:

When Raul Jimenez comes off an eight-hour shift at Swift & Co.'s Greeley, Colorado slaughterhouse, he often can barely move, exhausted from working on a line that turns live animals into processed meat as fast as six times a minute. That plant, one of the largest slaughterhouses in America, is a marvel of modern food processing. It also creates a pressure-cooker work environment that can pose dangers to both plant employees and the nation's consumers, say workers at the slaughterhouse, which was shut down November 15 after government inspectors found feces-contaminated meat three times in a week. The plant reopened [November 20]. "You're working, and you see there is something wrong with the meat, the only thing you can do is let it pass because another piece is coming right behind it," said Jimenez, who works amid the sweltering heat of the plant's kill floor. Blood-soaked and reeking, that floor works like the opposite of a factory assembly line, according to industry experts. As carcasses speed down the line, workers skin, gut and carve.

Each worker performs a single task hundreds, even thousands, of times an hour. Company officials say the line is running slower since the plant's reopening last week, that every employee now has the power to shut down production if contamination is spotted and that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved their plan to control fecal contamination. The first two are part of a wide-ranging safety review at the former ConAgra beef plant that began during the summer after the plant recalled 18.6 million pounds of meat for potential contamination with E. coli bacteria, which can be lethal. But several workers said that even with the plant's recent problems, supervisors apply constant pressure to keep the line moving.

Workers described a world in which they are driven, sometimes insulted and humiliated, to keep the plant's production up. "From the time you enter, you're told that if the plant stops ten minutes, the company will lose I don't know how many millions of dollars," said Maria Lilia Almaraz, who earns $10.60 an hour cutting bones from cuts of meat with a razor-sharp blade. "It's always 'faster, faster,"' she said.

Some workers blame that environment directly for the recent problems, noting that the line was halted for fecal contamination twice the day of the shutdown, before USDA inspectors finally closed the plant. "There is a lot of stuff that goes by because the line is moving too fast," said one worker whose job it is to catch contaminated meat on the line. The woman, a union representative, asked that her name not be used. She said that many key jobs in the plant are constantly understaffed and that training of the largely immigrant workforce is often shoddy. With too few workers on the line, "it's impossible to get it all." Many of the workers' charges are hard to verify independently, but actions taken by Swift in the two weeks after the shutdown bear some out. Line speed at the plant has slowed dramatically.

The pace is now being determined hourly, based on the number of workers available, the level of their training and the condition of the animals, company spokesman Jim Herlihy said. One of the most important changes --- giving workers the power to stop production if they spot contamination --- was already in place two days before the shutdown, he said. "The decision was made to make every employee a direct participant in that and give them the ability to stop the line if they see something that needs to be addressed," Herlihy said.

And the workers say supervisors have put more contamination cutters on every shift. But problems run deep, workers said, and many are not limited to the Greeley plant. Slaughterhouse work --- which in Greeley pays between $10 and $12 an hour - may be among the toughest in America. Federal accident statistics show that a meatpacking plant is three times more dangerous than the average construction site. That means high employee turnover, plant officials acknowledged.

Workers said many employees often stay for only six months or a year, often returning to their home countries or moving on. "It seems we get in 20 new hires a week," said the union representative who asked not to be identified. "A lot of times, (managers) just throw them on the line and say, 'Watch the guy next to you."' Herlihy said the company has an extensive training program, over a specific period of time, for new workers. "We just don't take a new employee, put them on the line and tell them to watch the person next to them." Swift also has a new program to retain workers, including helping newcomers find permanent housing and get acclimated in the community, he said.

But workers said managers must do more, including making the job safer. A former farm worker, Miguel Loma said that in 18 months at the plant, he has been injured twice. He broke his thumb last year. And recently he badly twisted his knee. "I was trying to keep up with the line, which was moving fast, and I slipped," Loma said. Workers say repetitive stress injuries, as well as back, shoulder and knee problems, are also common. "The workers aren't stable because they get hurt a lot," said Almaraz. Like other workers, Almaraz said she is afraid that the latest shutdown, on top of the other recent troubles at the plant, may cause it to close permanently.

The work is hard, but she doesn't want to lose it. "A lot of people come here for work because it pays ... more than other jobs," said the single mother. "Other jobs pay $6 or $7 an hour. This one pays $10.60," she said. "I don't want to be here. I do it because I need to."

WAMPLER FOODS DELAYED SEVERAL MONTHS INFORMING USDA OF POSSIBLE LISTERIA CONTAMINATION BUD HAZELKORN, NEW YORK TIMES:

A Pennsylvania poultry plant suspected of being a source of a listeria that has killed eight people detected a sharp rise in listeria around the time of the outbreak last summer but did not tell the government until late September, Agriculture Department officials said December 20.

Officials of the company, Wampler Foods have previously said that all the test results were in a file drawer available to government inspectors last summer. Regulators closed the plant in October, but it reopened a month later after a thorough cleaning. Critics say this dispute over notification illustrates how loose the government's regulation has been under a new system that places more responsibility for safety on the meat companies. Agriculture Department officials said they would have clamped down sooner if they had known about what they called a "spike" in Wampler's test results. But meat companies are typically not required to share the results of their own bacteria tests. Department officials say they are strengthening the rules.

The officials said Wampler's tests detected an increase in general types of listeria, most of them harmless. But scientists say such tests are the first sign that a plant might be harboring listeria Monocytogenes, the deadly type in the recent outbreak, and shipping contaminated products. Besides the eight deaths, 54 people have become ill since July in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and six other states. Government officials closed the Wampler plant on October 13 after inspectors found the strain of listeria monocytogenes that caused the deaths in the plant's drains. Wampler recalled 27 million pounds of turkey and poultry products.

It recovered five million pounds. Officials at Wampler, a part of Pilgrim's Pride, the nation's second-largest poultry company, said no returned meat had tested positive for the strain that caused the outbreak. Identical bacteria have been found in turkey processed by an unrelated company, J. L. Foods in Camden, and health officials say it is unclear how most of the victims became ill. Vince Erthal, a former inspector at the Wampler plant, said earlier [in December] that it had persistent sanitation problems. Mr. Erthal said that for two years, he was unable to persuade other Agriculture Department officials to crack down on the plant. Mr. Erthal, who moved to another plant in September, said Wampler employees had told him informally at various times that the company's tests had found general types of listeria in the plant. But he said he did not know about the increase in the listeria levels last summer.

Mr. Erthal and officials at the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the Agriculture Department also said the company never formally offered to share the results of its testing with the government. At issue now is what constitutes notification and whether the inspection agency has enough controls to verify the safety measures that a company says it is taking. Ron Morris, the senior vice president for turkey operations at Pilgrim's Pride, said the Wampler plant added listeria testing to its hazard-control plan in spring 2000. The company summarized the change at the start of the plan, Mr. Morris said.

Wampler officials said the inspectors should have seen that and noted the change in government records. Mr. Morris said that since then, the company routinely filed its listeria test results in a drawer marked "U.S.D.A.," where inspectors could review them. The company disinfected its equipment whenever it found listeria, he said. But Steven Cohen, a spokesman for the inspection service, said that at least five inspectors at the plant said they never saw any sign that the company had added bacterial testing to its plan and that none were told that the testing logs were in the drawer.

Mr. Erthal added that to avoid tension, inspectors were typically told to ask company employees for records rather than to search for them on their own. After the strain of listeria in the outbreak was found in the plant's drains, Mr. Cohen said, Wampler provided records showing that the percentage of tests that detected listeria was sharply higher in July and August than in May, June or September. Company officials said it was not unusual for listeria levels to rise in the summer. But Mr. Cohen said that whatever the company did to try eliminate the bacteria, "it was not effective."

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