Stricter USDA tests for troubled ConAgra plant, source of E. coli beef

September 12, 2002

Stricter USDA tests for troubled ConAgra meat processing plant

OCA note: The ConAgra contamination is a direct result of the USDA's recent program which nearly eliminates government inspection and replaces it with company inspection. Ironically, to solve the ConAgra contamination problem and keep the plant from shutting down, the USDA is - surprise! - temporarily raising the number of onsite government inspectors to 30. Once again, we've been proved right: Only stringent government inspection will keep private companies from cutting corners on food safety.

WASHINGTON, Sept 4 (Reuters) - U.S. food safety inspectors will continue to test all beef products made at ConAgra's meat plant in Colorado until it can prove it has enough safeguards to prevent contamination with the deadly E. coli bacteria, a U.S. Agriculture Department official said on Wednesday.

ConAgra Foods Inc. (CAG) in July launched the nation's second-largest beef recall, pulling nearly 19 million pounds of ground beef from its Greeley, Colorado, processing plant. At least 28 people in seven states fell ill after eating beef contaminated with E. coli.

Steve Cohen, spokesman for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said the Colorado plant revised its food safety system after the federal government threatened to pull its inspectors, which would have shut down the facility.

"They will be continuing to operate under close scrutiny for the foreseeable future," Cohen said.

To ensure that ConAgra's new food safety checkpoints are sufficient, all beef products from the Colorado plant will be tested by 30 USDA inspectors stationed at the facility.

A spokesman for ConAgra was not immediately available for comment.

At other U.S. meat plants, the USDA randomly samples beef products for E. coli.

The USDA declined to say how long the new procedure would continue at the ConAgra plant.

E. coli, typically acquired through contaminated food or water, causes bloody diarrhea, vomiting and cramps. In severe cases, usually involving the elderly and young children, it can lead to kidney failure and death.

Consumer groups and a handful of Democrats have criticized the USDA's handling of the ConAgra recall. They say lax oversight of meat plants and inconsistent enforcement allowed the contamination to occur.

The USDA's Office of Inspector General is conducting an investigation into the matter.

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