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Why is Whole Foods Using a Beef Packer with a Record of Meat Safety Violations?

The recall of Whole Foods Market ground beef sold between June 2 and Aug. 6 has shed a new spotlight on Nebraska Beef of Omaha, one of the country's largest meatpackers. Whole Foods has said it did not know that its vendor, Coleman Natural Foods, had used Nebraska Beef to process the meat.

Seven people in Massachusetts, from ages 3 to 60, sickened by E. coli had bought beef from Whole Foods stores in the Bay State, The Boston Globe has reported. The same strain has sickened 31 people in 12 states, the District of Columbia, and Canada, The Washington Post reported today. Whole Foods has asked customers to throw away the beef and bring in packaging or a receipt for a refund.

The Whole Foods ground beef was among 1.2 million pounds of Nebraska Beef recalled on Friday. The processor recalled 5 million pounds produced in May and June after its beef was blamed for another E. coli outbreak in seven states.

Today's Post article (click here for the full report) detailed sanitation violations over the past six years at Nebraska Beef, including these four points:

-- US Department of Agriculture shut down the plant three times in 2002 and 2003 for problems such as feces on carcasses, water dripping off pipes onto meat, paint peeling onto equipment and plugged-up meat wash sinks.

--In 2004 and early 2005, Nebraska Beef was written up at least five times for not removing brains or spinal cords from the food supply, as required. The company corrected the problems. Those parts may be infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease.

--US inspectors in August 2006 threatened to suspend Nebraska Beef operations for not following requirements for controlling E. coli. The company corrected the problem a week later, USDA records show.

--Also in 2006, Minnesota health officials blamed Nebraska Beef for sickening 17 people who ate meatballs at a church potluck in rural Minnesota. Several victims filed lawsuits against Nebraska Beef, including the family of a woman who died.

William M. Lamson Jr., a Nebraska Beef spokesman, told the Post the company and the USDA have increased testing of its meat. It has found no E. coli in products made since July 8.

(Update Sunday evening: A Whole Foods spokesman e-mailed to emphasize that the recall was a "voluntary multi-state recall'' -- not nationwide, but 24 states, the District of Columbia and Canada. A related release said that the states involved were Massachusetts and Pennsylvania and added that the company was "broadening the voluntary recall to the following states out of an abundance of caution'' -- Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and Wisconsin.)