ConAgra Sets off Latest Food Poisoning Epidemic

New York Times
July 20, 2002
19 Million Pounds of Meat Recalled After 19 Fall Ill

WASHINGTON, July 19 - The Agriculture Department announced today a
recall of 19 million pounds of ground beef that might be contaminated by
the E. coli pathogen and that has found its way to grocery store shelves
and home freezers around the country.

The recall, involving meat produced by the ConAgra Beef Company, was
announced after 19 people became ill in California, Colorado, Michigan,
South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming as a result of eating tainted
hamburger traced from the ConAgra plant in Greeley, Colo. The youngest
person to suffer from the outbreak was a 2-year-old, and several people
were hospitalized, according to the Agriculture Department.

"This action is being taken as a cautionary measure to ensure the
protection of public health," Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said.
"Public health is our No. 1 priority, and it is our No. 1 concern."

The action is the second-largest recall of meat in the country's

Agriculture officials said that in all likelihood much of the meat
subject to the recall had already been eaten.

Officials said they did not want to risk underestimating the quantity of
meat that could be tainted and stored in freezers.

Because it will take days to trace all the recalled meat produced from
April 12 to July 11, Ms. Veneman said, she could not name the stores
that bought the meat or the brands under which it was sold.

ConAgra sold the meat to wholesalers who ground, mixed and repackaged it
for retailers and grocery chains, making it difficult to give an
accurate accounting today, said a spokesman for ConAgra, Jim Herlihy.

A detailed list of all the ConAgra wholesale products being recalled is
on the Agriculture Department Web site,
/prelease/pr055-2002.htm. The department also has a special telephone
information line for consumers, (800) 535-4555, during business hours.

ConAgra asked supermarkets and other food stores to remove all the
recalled meat that they found on their shelves and to post notices in
their stores alerting consumers that they should return the suspect meat
for refunds.

Ms. Veneman said it was especially important to cook ground beef
thoroughly, at 160 degrees, a temperature that kills the E. coli 0157:H7

All the recalled items of beef trim and frozen ground beef were labeled
"EST. 969" inside a U.S.D.A. inspection seal. Consumers who find
recalled meat in their refrigerators can call ConAgra at (888) 742-0467.

The extent of the recall prompted renewed calls in Congress and by food
safety groups to improve health standards in meatpacking plants.

After the nation's largest recall of beef, 25 million pounds produced by
Hudson Foods in 1997, Congress mounted an effort to increase the number
of inspections and tighten safety standards in packing plants. The meat
industry blocked that effort.

"You're either going to have to institute a thorough testing program or
continue treating people for this terrible illness," said Carol Tucker
Foreman, director of the food policy institute at the Consumer
Federation of America. "I think it's an easy decision. Test often and
hold the industry responsible."

Responding to those concerns, the Agriculture Department did approve a
system of hazard controls for slaughterhouses and packing plants four
years ago. The department does not have the legal authority to close
packing plants with repeated health violations or impose fines. Every
recall has to be voluntary.

The department can act against defiant plants by removing inspectors and
refusing to certify the meat.

Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who heads the Agriculture,
Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said today that he would push
legislation to create standards to reduce pathogens in packing plants.

"We must make it clear once and for all," Mr. Harkin said, "that
U.S.D.A. has the authority to set and enforce standards to reduce
pathogens. I hope that in light of this recall industry leaders will
finally begin working with Congress and U.S.D.A. to develop enforceable

The department was notified on July 10 of the outbreak of the E. coli
illnesses in Colorado and immediately sent teams to Greeley, Ms. Veneman

ConAgra recalled 354,200 pounds of meat on June 30, after a grinding
plant in Denver warned the company at the end of May that some meat it
had received from Greeley had tested positive for E. coli. At that
point, there were no reports of illnesses.

Some people who work in the meat industry complained today that the
recall was far too broad.

"We always want to protect the public's health, but I think this recall
is excessive," said Rosemary Mucklow, executive director of the National
Meat Association, an industry group. "We know the meat produced on May
31 has caused illness. So to recall a large quantity of untested meat,
especially meat that has been in circulation for three months, may be an
effort that is not justified."

A spokesman for the Agriculture Department's food safety and inspection
service, Steven Cohen, said it was necessary for the recall to cover
three months of production because E. coli had been sporadically
detected even before the outbreak of illness, and "to be absolutely
sure, it is better to err on the side of caution."

Meat is contaminated in skinning and gutting, when the E. coli escapes
from animals' intestines or from fecal material stuck to the skin and
enters into the muscle meat sold as hamburger.

The deadliest outbreak of E. coli contamination occurred in 1993, when
the Jack in the Box restaurant chain sold hamburgers tainted with E.
coli 0157:H7. Four children died, and hundreds became ill.

Labor officials have long complained that employees at the ConAgra
slaughterhouse in Greeley, who are not unionized, are poorly trained for
the dangerous work. Many are immigrants, with the additional
disadvantage of not speaking or writing English fluently, and may not be
able to follow the complicated procedures, workers' advocates say.

Mr. Herlihy of ConAgra said that because of the recall the company had
begun additional training in food safety for all the plant's employees.
He also said the plant had begun intensified testing for E. coli.

"Food safety," Mr. Herlihy said, "is our primary goal, and we want to
take every step we can to ensure we improve our processes."

The plant has hired an outside microbiologist from the University of
Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine to review the
plant's five-year-old system that uses a combination of heat, cold and
organic acids to neutralize or kill pathogens.

Ms. Veneman said today, "ConAgra has been very cooperative throughout
this review process."

Dr. Elsa Murano, under secretary for food safety at the department, said
the potentially deadly E. coli O157:H7 initially resulted in diarrhea
and was especially dangerous for the very young and the very old.

"It can lead to bleeding and, eventually, to kidney failure in the most
vulnerable," Dr. Murano said.

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