Plant Recalls 25 Million Pounds of Beef
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By MICHAEL JANOFSKY August 22, 1997WASHINGTON -- A Nebraska meat-processing plant is closing indefinitely and is expanding its recall of ground beef to 25 million pounds after federal investigators found evidence that far more meat might be contaminated by a hazardous bacteria than originally suspected. Last week, the plant recalled 1.2 million pounds of meat.
Thursday's actions were voluntary, but they were undertaken by the plant's owner, Hudson Foods of Rogers, Ark., under an implicit threat from the Agriculture Department that unless the processing and administrative problems at the plant were corrected, the department would force the plant to close by withdrawing food-safety inspectors.
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said at a news conference on Thursday that the latest recall was the largest in U.S. history. Glickman said federal investigators found evidence this week that hamburger patties left over from production on June 5 -- which showed evidence of the potentially deadly bacteria, E. coli 0157:H7 -- were added to production the next day. As a result, the company could not guarantee that any meat produced subsequently would be free of the bacteria, leading the Agriculture Department to press for the latest recall.
Every year in the United States, bacteria in meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, fruit and vegetables kill as many as 9,000 people, mostly children and elderly people, and sicken millions. So far, Colorado accounts for all 17 cases of E. coli poisoning traced to the Nebraska plant, and all of those people have recovered.
Glickman said: "I believe that the action we are taking today, while tough, is the only option based on the new information our investigators have uncovered. This is a big step, but the evidence indicates we have contained the outbreak."
Because a recall is only voluntary, Glickman said he would ask Congress in the fall to give the Agriculture Department the authority to impose a recall and civil penalties against plants that do not comply with federal regulations.
In any case, supermarkets and restaurants that use or sell ground beef that might have been contaminated with E. coli bacteria were removing it on Thursday and were seeking to reassure customers about the safety of their products.
The tainted meat from the Hudson plant, in the eastern Nebraska town of Columbus, is the most prominent case of the E. coli bacteria since four children died and hundreds of other people became ill in 1993 after eating undercooked hamburgers from Jack in the Box outlets in the Northwest.
That outbreak led to the creation of a vice-presidential commission, which proposed more stringent methods of monitoring hazardous bacteria in food-processing plants. A system of protocols recommended by the commission was a major part of the Clinton administration's effort to improve food safety, a $43.2 million program in the 1998 budget.
The Agriculture Department began investigating problems at the Hudson plant after company officials expanded their recall of ground beef to 1.2 million pounds on Aug. 15, the largest such recall at that time, from an initial recall of 20,000 pounds three days earlier. Hudson made the first recall after public health officials in Colorado identified the E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria in Hudson beef patties in late July and on Aug. 12.
But Thomas Billy, the administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service, an arm of the Agriculture Department, said that as federal investigators looked deeper into plant operations they found that they plant had weak quality control standards, an inadequate system of record keeping and a routine practice of returning unused raw material into the next day's production.
It was on the basis of those conditions, Billy said, that the company agreed to recall the additional meat, which Glickman said had been distributed across the country in the form of four-ounce frozen patties to chains including Burger King, Boston Market, Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and Safeway supermarkets.
Department officials conceded they did not know how much of the 25 million pounds remained uneaten. Whatever is returned, they said, will be destroyed by a Hudson plant in Van Buren, Ark.
The company's chairman, James Hudson, said in a statement the decisions to expand the recall and close the plant until problems were corrected had been made "out of an abundance of caution to restore the public confidence." Hudson also said the company believed that the source of any contamination had come from the slaughterhouses that supplied the raw, deboned meat and not the plant, where the meat is processed into frozen patties -- an assessment with which Agriculture Department officials concurred.
Department officials said they had identified seven slaughterhouses that brought raw product to the plant. The officials declined to identify them until they were certain whether any one had supplied contaminated meat, but they said they had found no other indication of illness from meat processed by other customers of the slaughterhouses.
Long concerned with problems of contamination, the Agriculture Department and other federal agencies approved the new system of hazard controls for processing plants to replace the current means of inspection, which Glickman described as "poke and sniff."
The new system is scheduled to take effect on Jan. 26 in plants with 500 workers and more. But plants with 10 to 499 workers, including the Hudson plant in Nebraska, are not required to have the new controls in place until January 1999. The smallest plants, those with fewer than 10 workers, are required to phase in changes by January 2000.
The new monitoring system includes more detailed and frequent inspections of the processing equipment during operation. Many plants around the country have begun using the controls voluntarily. In an interview on Wednesday, a senior official at Hudson's Nebraska plant, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the plant had already put the controls in place. "We're way ahead of the curve," the official said.
Billy, the food inspection official, said investigators had found that the plant had "some sort of hazard plan." But he dismissed the assertion that Hudson was using the protocols from the new system.
"I am unaware that their plan conforms to the regulations," Billy said. "I am unaware their science has been validated and I am unaware that Hudson is following the plan on a day-to-day basis."
Billy said investigators had been alarmed by inadequacies in the plant's record-keeping, which obscured daily levels of production. He also questioned the plant management's sincerity in dealing with the contaminated product because Federal investigators prompted the wider recall last week, not the company.
Hudson said he hoped that the closing of the Nebraska plant, which is four years old and employs about 230 people, would not last long. But Billy said it would remain closed until federal officials were convinced that there were no more indications of contamination in the plant, that the latest monitoring system was in place and the plant's record-keeping was improved.
Consumers are advised to return all Hudson Foods frozen beef patties with Establishment No. 13569 printed inside the USDA inspection seal. Consumers may also call the USDA hot line at (800) 535-4555, or Hudson's hot line at (800) 447-2670.
The Associated Press August 23, 1997WASHINGTON -- This week's massive recall of possibly tainted hamburger should not worry most consumers as long as they take some precautions and make sure any meat is well cooked, say food safety and industry experts.
The Agriculture Department has advised consumers to return frozen beef patties from a Hudson Food plant in Nebraska because of concern that some of the meat may be contaminated by the potentially deadly E. coli bacteria. But food safety experts and beef industry spokesmen say anyone craving a hamburger should, nevertheless, take precautions.
Most important, cook the meat thoroughly, so that it reaches at least 160 degrees internally. "If it's cooked correctly, you should not have a problem, but cooking it correctly is the trick," said Doug Holt, an associate professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Proper cooking is essential for hamburger meat, agrees Janet Riley of the American Meat Institute. "Meat is sterile on the inside. When you grind it, you distribute bacteria from the outside," she said. "It's fine to eat a steak rare; it's just ground product where you really need to be cooking them thoroughly."
Here are some other tips from the experts to avoid bacteria contamination when preparing meals with raw meat or poultry:
--Wash hands thoroughly in hot, soapy water before handling food and after handling raw meat;
--Don't let raw meat or poultry juices touch ready-to-eat foods, either in the refrigerator or during preparation;
--If you carry raw hamburger to an outdoor grill on a plate, do not use the plate again until it has been washed.
--Wash utensils that have touched raw meat with hot, soapy water before using them for cooked meals;
--Wash counters, cutting boards and other surfaces that raw meats have touched. Holt recommends diluting a teaspoon of bleach in a quart of water, pouring the mixture into a squirt bottle and misting the countertop.
Holt said that some people ought to be especially cautious.
"If you're in a high-risk category -- young children or the elderly, or have chronic diseases that affect the immune system like cancer, AIDS or diabetes -- I would avoid ground beef and ground meat products," Holt said. "Something that would cause you and I to feel bad could be lethal to someone like that."
A Hudson Foods plant in Nebraska recalled 25 million pounds of ground hamburger meat under orders from the government this week. Authorities were concerned some of it may be contaminated with E. coli, the potentially deadly bacteria that can cause severe abdominal cramps, fever, diarrhea and dehydration.
People with such symptoms should immediately contact a doctor or hospital, USDA officials said.
By PAM BELLUCK August 24, 1997OLUMBUS, Neb. -- One late spring day last year, several trucks rolled away from the Hudson Foods processing plant and out of the cornfields bracketing this city of 20,000 people in the heart of the nation's beef belt. They were loaded with frozen ground beef patties destined to be turned into Whoppers, hamburgers and Whopper Jr.'s at Burger King restaurants around the country.
But after the trucks were well on the road, Hudson Foods made a disturbing discovery. The company had shipped the meat without waiting for the results of the bacterial tests that Burger King requires of all its suppliers, said Mark A. Giresi, senior vice president and general counsel at Burger King.
When the results came back, they showed that some of the beef had been infected with staphylococcus bacteria, which can cause vomiting and diarrhea.
"We made them pull it all back," Giresi said, so the contamination was caught before the meat made it to any Burger King kitchens. Hudson Foods dismissed an employee over the incident and agreed to tighten supervision and shipping procedures.
"Human error was made and the company dealt with it aggressively and strongly," Skip Rutherford, a company spokesman, said Saturday.
But Giresi said Burger King officials were sufficiently alarmed that they did what they had never done to a supplier before or since: they placed Hudson Foods on what they called probation, checking the meat plant's Burger King production with unannounced visits and laboratory tests eight times a month.
After a year, Burger King was satisfied with the plant's performance; in late June, it stopped the special monitoring. Seven weeks later, the Hudson Foods plant became the object of what federal officials called the largest meat recall in United States history, 25 million pounds of ground beef.
Saturday, Giresi said that Burger King would stop buying beef from Hudson Foods, which means the plant is losing its biggest customer.
The trajectory of the relationship between Burger King and the Hudson Foods plant may say as much about the competitive and sensitive nature of the meat industry as it does about the specific quality of production at a single meat processor thrust suddenly into the spotlight.
It is a world where federal regulations have left much unspecified. Many practices are determined by the dictates of efficiency or the marketplace. So many different steps and companies are involved that the chain from ranch to slaughterhouse to processing plant to customer is far from an easily traceable straight line.
At the Hudson plant in Columbus, Neb., many employees and even federal inspectors say that the plant, one of the most modern in the industry, is clean and generally well run. But federal investigators said that some of the plant's practices were worrying -- specifically, poor record-keeping and the mixing of one day's leftover hamburger patties into the next day's production.
The giant recall announced last week came after earlier recalls of more than a million pounds of Hudson Foods beef, which were ordered when 16 people in Colorado became ill from eating hamburgers made from the beef. The meet was found to have been infected with E. coli bacteria. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the meat was contaminated before it reached the Columbus plant, most likely in one of a handful of flsughterhouses.
Officials from the Agriculture Department have said that the infected meat that made 17 people in Colorado sick was contaminated with E. coli bacteria before it ever reached the Columbus plant, most likely in one of a handful of slaughterhouses.
And Burger King is making the move even though the problems federal officials say they found at Hudson Foods itself were not found in the separate production line the Columbus plant ran for Burger King, which requires significantly stricter procedures than federal law does.
"We've advised them that we will not be buying any more beef products," Giresi said. He said that Burger King would continue to buy chicken from Hudson Foods, which is produced at other plants.
Rutherford of Hudson Foods said Saturday morning that he was unaware of that move by Burger King. "We believe this is a very good and safe plant," he said. "We've also said that if we can do things better, then we'll certainly be open to doing that. We've listened; we've heard. If there are improvements that need to be made we'll do that."
The plant at the center of this swirl of events is in many ways a more advanced and better-maintained operation than many other meat-processing plants, said Federal officials and employees who have worked at Hudson and similar companies.
It is an impressive edifice, a sprawling grayish-beige building with gleaming windows, a stone-fringed pond out front, and, at least on a sun-baked day in August, dozens of sprinklers spraying the bright green manicured grass.
Friday, the day after the plant was temporarily closed and the recall of the 25 million pounds of beef -- nearly a fifth of the plant's annual production -- was announced, employees were open in their support for the plant.
"I have a freezer full of Hudson meat I get with an employee purchase discount, and I'm not throwing it away," said Jenny Jacobson, 26, who operates a scale used to weigh meatloaf and tubes of meat sold to Boston Markets restaurants. Ms. Jacobson and two other employees, leaving the plant after a company meeting, said the sanitary procedures were the most sophisticated and strict they had ever seen.
"We wear hairnets and hard hats over that," Ms. Jacobson said. "Men with any facial hair at all wear beard nets. We all have to go through a boot wash when we come in."
Mary Everett, 41, another scale operator, chimed in.
"No nail polish, no jewelry, not even a cough drop on the floor," she said. "Ear plugs. We're a good-looking bunch, I'll tell you that."
Brenda Johnson, 24, who makes meatloaf boxes, added, "They even have automatic toilet flushing."
The Hudson Foods plant, with its 230 employees, is not the most significant employer in Columbus, which sits in the Platte River Valley about 90 miles west of Omaha, along the route of the old Mormon trail. In fact, the city of 20,000 people calls itself the most industrialized municipality in Nebraska. It has a low unemployment rate and 6,000 manufacturing jobs -- making everything from hypodermic needles to satellite antennas.
Still, when Hudson Foods Inc., based in Rogers, Ark., opened its only beef plant here two and a half years ago to make frozen patties for Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and other chains, people lined up for jobs, said Dale Collinsworth, executive vice president of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce. The pay was average, but the plant was modern and mechanized, the temperature inside was always comfortably cool for the meat.
"It's the kind of industry we look for," Collinsworth said. "It starts small and grows."
The Hudson Foods plant has had the kind of brushes with regulatory agencies that most meat producers have. In 1996, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the plant $4,000 for mostly administrative infractions, for example inadequate written guidelines for emergency evacuations. (Since 1972, Hudson Foods has been fined $454,498 by OSHA, more than $330,000 of that a penalty imposed last month against a poultry processing plant in Noel, Mo.
In Columbus, Agriculture Department inspectors are at Hudson Foods every morning, as they are at most large plants, to see that the plant complies with federal regulations.
While the Department of Agriculture has approved new regulations that will begin taking effect in January, current guidelines do not prescribe as many tests or procedures as Burger King and some other large chains. Employees said that staff quality-control inspectors sampled beef every hour and tested it at a plant laboratory.
After the recall and temporary shutdown was announced, James T. Hudson, the company's chairman, said in a statement that the decision was made "out of an abundance of caution to restore the public confidence."
For its part, the city of Columbus is standing solidly behind Hudson Foods.
"Anybody been through their plant knows it's just as clean and well run as any place can be," said Dick James, who was broiling cheeseburgers at Dickie Doodles, his convenience store near the plant.
Many people said they wished the Agriculture Department would focus more public attention on the slaughterhouses and on the stores that sold the beef patties in Colorado.
"I think it's been blown out of proportion," said Rick Kubler, a stock and insurance broker eating lunch at Glur's Tavern, which calls itself the oldest continuously operated tavern west of the Missouri River. "I mean, nobody's died."
And Collinsworth said all the publicity might have an ulterior undercurrent.
"There's always somebody out there trying to downgrade the meat industry," Collinsworth said. "I'm sure the people -- veggies, is that what they call them -- I bet they're rejoicing right now."
By MICHAEL JANOFSKY August 23, 1997WASHINGTON -- Over the next several days, Agriculture Department officials across the United States will pore over mounds of paperwork and interview people in an effort to determine the source of the E. coli bacteria that led to this week's recall of 25 million pounds of ground beef.
But the officials acknowledge that their search will be hampered by one simple fact: For all their technological improvements in safeguarding the nation's food supply, they do not really know how bacteria get into that food supply.
Most of the modernization has come in processing plants and slaughterhouses, where new federal monitoring systems are to go into effect next year.
The officials also said scientists were still uncertain how animals -- before they are slaughtered -- become contaminated with a bacterium like E. coli 0157:H7, a deadly organism that was discovered this month in ground beef processed at a plant in Nebraska.
Some officials say that the government has missed opportunities to develop such a system, because of opposition from the powerful food industry, and inaction by agencies.
Referring to the various possible ways E. coli and other organisms enter an animal before it is killed, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said in an interview, "We would like to expend more research resources on that."
On Thursday the Agriculture Department announced that the plant, owned by Hudson Foods of Rogers, Ark., would suspend operations and recall 25 million pounds of ground beef that is possibly contaminated with E. coli bacteria.
The recalled meat had been distributed as frozen hamburger patties to fast-food chains like Burger King, a subsidiary of Grand Metropolitan of Britain, and Boston Market, and retail outlets like Wal-Mart Stores and Safeway supermarkets.
So far, the department has evidence that 16 people in Colorado became ill because of the bacteria in meat from the Hudson plant. But Thomas Billy, administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service, a branch of the Agriculture Department, said officials believed that those victims became ill after undercooking frozen patties they had bought in stores.
Glickman said the Colorado outbreak highlighted the need for the Agriculture Department to work harder in educating the public about how to prepare foods properly -- like ensuring that meat reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 15 seconds.
Undercooked hamburgers sold by Jack in the Box fast-food restaurants in 1993 and found to have E. coli bacteria were blamed for killing four children and making hundreds of other people ill.
Since then, restaurants have been advised to cook meat at temperatures that are sufficient to kill any harmful bacteria. In addition, it was largely as a result of the Jack in the Box outbreak that government officials began devising new, more sophisticated protocols for inspecting meat, seafood and poultry while they are processed.
The protocols were included in the Clinton administration's food-safety program that finally won congressional approval this year as part of the 1998 budget.
But Glickman, a former Democratic House member from Kansas, said the contamination found in the meat from the Hudson plant underscored the need to learn how animals contract harmful bacteria before they reach the slaughterhouse.
Bacteria enter an animal's system through a variety of ways, including drinking water or contact with fecal matter, which often clings to an animal's skin. But once they are slaughtered, skinned and deboned, it is impossible to determine which carcass might have contaminated others with the bacteria.
With new inspection controls at the slaughterhouses, one way to to help track the source, Billy said, would be to tag animals as they leave a particular farm or feed lot, where farmers often send livestock to be fattened before slaughter.
Such a tracing system was proposed to Congress in 1980, said Carol Tucker Foreman, an Agriculture Department official in the Carter administration. But it stalled under intense opposition from food-industry groups and has never progressed in several subsequent efforts to get similar legislation though Congress.
Heather Klinkhamer of Safe Tables Our Priority, a consumer group that was formed in New York after the Jack in the Box outbreak, said her group had recommended sending animals through a kind of car wash before slaughter.
But the administration's food-safety program, which is budgeted for $43.2 million, includes only $4.1 million for research on issues that would bear directly on problems of animal contamination.
In legislation that the administration could send to Congress as early as the fall, Glickman said he would probably include a proposal for a tracing system as well as a request that the Agriculture Department be given the authority to require food companies to recall products that might be contaminated. He said he would also ask for the authority to impose fines on companies that do not comply with federal monitoring regulations.
By MICHAEL JANOFSKY August 21, 1997WASHINGTON -- The federal investigation into the possible contamination of 1.2 million pounds of ground beef at a Nebraska processing plant has underscored a longstanding debate over the government's efforts to safeguard food production.
Consumer groups, and federal veterinarians who supervise plant inspections, say the recall of the beef last week might have been less extensive if a monitoring system proposed almost five years ago had been in place, even though officials from the plant, owned by Hudson Foods of Rogers, Ark., said they had already adopted voluntary measures.
The critics also question whether the government is properly training inspectors to use the new procedures, known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point systems. Those procedures are a crucial part of the Clinton administration's overall effort to improve food safety, a $43.2 million program in the 1998 fiscal budget.
Agriculture Department officials say it is too soon to know whether problems at the Nebraska plant could have been avoided. But they describe the new procedures as a major improvement in food safety that should help restore public confidence, severely strained since 1993, when four children died and hundreds of people became ill from E. coli bacteria in undercooked hamburgers sold by Jack in the Box fast-food restaurants in the Northwest.
"This is such an important change for us," said Thomas J. Billy, the Administrator of the Food Safety Inspection Service, referring to the system set to go into effect next January. "It should have a huge impact on the whole industry."
Every year in the United States, bacteria in meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, fruit and vegetables kill as many as 9,000 people, mostly children and elderly people, and sicken millions of others. Contaminants can be introduced anywhere from the slaughterhouse to the dining room table.
Billy said some food-processing plants had been using the new controls voluntarily since 1995, two years after they were recommended by a vice-presidential commission because of the contamination found in the Northwest.
Congressional wrangling kept the initiative out of the federal budget until this year. Now, large plants with 500 or more workers are required to have the system in place by Jan. 26 and smaller plants are to phase it in over the next two years. Any plant that fails to follow the new procedures, correct problems or keep proper records will face the risk of giving up the right to operate.
The government also plans to open an Omaha office to provide new technical assistance to inspectors and the veterinarians who supervise them, "the nerve center for the new system," Billy said.
But critics say such steps are not being taken soon enough and may still be inadequate to meet the challenge of keeping harmful bacteria out of the food supply.
Federal agencies acknowledge as much. In their recent report to the White House outlining the broad program to improve food safety, including the new monitoring system, the Agriculture Department, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conceded that "'our understanding of some disease-causing organisms is so limited that our ability to protect the public health is seriously constrained."
"The system has been out of date for the last 20 years," said Carole Tucker Foreman, coordinator of the Safe Food Coalition, a consulting group. "The government has finally bitten the bullet and tried to bring it up to current science."
Until now, inspections have been largely visual: viewing carcasses at the slaughterhouse for signs of disease or making sure temperatures are kept at proper levels.
The new monitoring system will add a series of checkpoints during production when food could be vulnerable to bacteria. Inspectors will be required to have a wider knowledge of microbiology, chemistry and food-processing technology as well as the ability to recognize when a piece of machinery should be shut down for cleaning.
That worries some critics, who say the Agriculture Department's 8,000 inspectors, many of whom have only a high school education, are ill equipped to perform the new duties. The government plans to offer them the equivalent of two weeks of training. But Dr. Edward Menning, a past president of the National Association of Federal Veterinarians who has retired from the Agriculture Department, said that would still leave the inspectors incapable of fulfilling basic requirements of the job.
"With everything they're doing, the process is supposed to be more scientific, and that requires more scientific people," Menning said. "But increasingly, we're seeing people less trained than before, people who do not know what to look for."
Menning and others said they also had a serious concern about another major element of the administration's initiative, which would shift major responsibilities for monitoring to the plant management. When the new procedures go into effect, each plant will be required to designate its own control measures to prevent bacterial hazards. The safety controls would be based on plant characteristics like its equipment, hours of operation and output.
The plant would be responsible for following its own protocols. Inspectors will still check plant operations, said Dr. Theodore Bek, a retired Federal veterinarian, but giving management a free hand to choose set up its protocols is a case of the fox guarding the henhouse.
"I think it's a disaster waiting to happen," said Bek, who was an area supervisor in Illinois, Indiana and southwest Michigan.
"The main thrust of the industry is profits," he said. "You can't add to profits by taking the time to run tests on a product. If the company had an in-plant quality control agent reporting to the local plant manager, I would be suspicious about how that would be carried out."
Carolyn Smith DeWaal, the director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group, said: "If it's not implemented well, it is little more than an industry honor system."
Billy said federal officials initially had the same concerns "and do have them now."
"But there are strict regulatory consequences if they don't follow the new plan," he said. "We could withdraw our inspector, and that shuts them down. They can't operate."