Sara Lee Deliberately Allowed Deadly Meat to Be Sold

Sara Lee Deliberately Allowed
Deadly Meat to Be Sold

Bosses knew shipped meat was tainted, workers say


By Jennifer Dixon
Knight Ridder/Tribune
Published August 30, 2001

DETROIT -- Months before people began dying nationwide in 1998, managers
at a Sara Lee Corp. plant in western Michigan knew they were shipping tainted
hot dogs and deli meats, according to statements given by workers and a
meat inspector to federal criminal investigators.

A report obtained by the Detroit Free Press, under the federal Freedom of
Information Act, cites one employee who said he or she knew with "virtual
certainty" that meats produced and sold by the Bil Mar plant in Borculo
were contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes and that management had "a
similar level of awareness."

A federal meat inspector also told the investigators that Bil Mar managers
were aware the plant had increased levels of listeria about eight months
before the nationwide listeriosis outbreak that killed 15, caused six
miscarriages and sickened 101 people.

But, the inspector said, management intentionally "skirted the law" and
shipped meats without testing them.

Prosecutors saw no proof

The investigators' findings conflict with conclusions of federal
prosecutors in Grand Rapids that the government "uncovered no evidence
that Sara Lee intentionally distributed the adulterated meat product."
That was one of the reasons given by U.S. Atty. Phillip Green in June when
he allowed Sara Lee to plead guilty to a single federal misdemeanor charge
in the 1998-99 outbreak. The company agreed to pay a $200,000 fine
and to make a $3 million grant to Michigan State University for food safety

Sara Lee's plea agreement was announced 10 months after investigators from
the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Inspector General completed
their report. The report concluded that Bil Mar management knew or should
have known that the Ball Park hot dogs, Sara Lee premium deli meats and
other products made in 1998 were contaminated with the bacteria. In a brief
interview Wednesday, Green said he was not familiar with the investigators'
report. As the U.S. attorney for western Michigan, Green said he does not
examine every report connected with each prosecution by his office. "I stand
by our decision," Green said. "And to the extent that you have information you
believe is contradictory, I'm happy to examine it."

Julie Ketay, a spokeswoman for Sara Lee, said the government's investigation
concluded that the company did not intentionally distribute adulterated meat.
She said she could not comment on details of the report. A spokeswoman for
USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service also declined to comment. A
spokeswoman for the USDA's Office of Inspector General said only that the
investigators' report speaks for itself. Advocates 'horrified' Consumer advocates
questioned Green's prosecution of the case. "The whole thing is scandalous,
absolutely scandalous," said Nancy Donley in Chicago, president of Safe
Tables Our Priority, a grass-roots organization that represents victims of
food-borne illness. "I'm horrified." Carol Tucker Foreman, director of food policy
for the Consumer Federation of America, called on Congress to investigate.
"If they set out to defraud the system, they succeeded," said Foreman, a
former meat-inspection chief at USDA. "It's shocking and appalling, and
furthermore, it encourages other companies to be criminally lax." In their report,
the USDA's investigators included summaries of interviews with at least three
current or former Bil Mar workers and an employee of USDA's Food Safety
and Inspection Service assigned to the plant at the time.

The identities of those interviewed were deleted before the report was released
to the Free Press. The investigators' report suggests the Bil Mar plant was a place
where management put production, and profits, before safety, workers said. And,
they claimed, management had to know there was a problem with listeria tainting
meats that were being shipped to grocery stores, restaurants, military installations
and college dormitories.

In April 1998, three months before the onset of the listeriosis outbreak, the
investigators found documents that showed Bil Mar issued a credit for 218 cases
of turkey breast shipped to a California business after the meat tested positive for
the bacterium.

According to a complaint form, "Customer in San Diego was complaining of taste
& quality sent to lab & tested positive for listeria." The food-safety inspector told
investigators that plant workers became aware of a listeria problem in December
1997, a year before Sara Lee recalled 35 million pounds of meat. The USDA worker
told a Bil Mar employee at the time that the plant was running a risk of getting in
trouble if it shipped contaminated foods, according to the investigators' report. The
Bil Mar worker replied: "They would never know it was our product since
[listeria] has about a two-week incubation period," the report said.

The inspector said that someone at the plant had said it was "OK for the plant to
sell product they thought had listeria in it as long as they didn't know for sure."
Workers cite lapses A former Bil Mar employee told investigators that plant lab
technicians had been instructed by management to test only for conditions that are
optimal for the growth of listeria, a cold-loving bacterium that thrives in moist
environments, but not for the actual presence of Listeria monocytogenes.

Workers were also instructed to keep laboratory test results in a special file
"that was to be withheld from the USDA," the report said. Another former
Bil Mar employee claimed to have become aware of a listeria problem in late
spring or early summer 1998. In a signed statement, the employee told investigators
that "responsible members of management at Bil Mar had knowledge of a
microbial problem in the plant but were not trying to cover up this fact. It is
my personal belief that due to what has happened, members of Bil Mar
management were criminally negligent in that they allowed product to leave
the plant that could have had a bacteriological problem."

A Bil Mar worker who kept six diaries related to working at the plant said
he knew with "virtual certainty" that the products produced and sold by Bil Mar
were contaminated with listeria and believed that "Bil Mar management had
a similar level of awareness."

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