Milwaukee company expands beef recall over E coli concern, shuts plant for review

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Oct 4, 2002 (CIDRAP News) – A Milwaukee packing company has expanded its recall of ground beef over concern about potential Escherichia coli O157:H7 contamination and has temporarily closed one of its plants under pressure from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Emmpak Foods, Inc., recalled another 2.3 million pounds of ground beef Oct 2, adding to the 416,000-pound recall issued Sep 27, according to the USDA and company officials. Yesterday, the company stopped production at one of its four Milwaukee-area plants because the USDA suspended meat inspections there, company spokesman Mark Klein told CIDRAP News.

An outbreak of more than 50 cases of E coli O157:H7 infection in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and other states appears to be connected with ground beef from Emmpak, which does business as Peck Meats, state and federal health officials said earlier this week.

USDA "suspended the seal of inspection" for meat produced at the Emmpak plant, Klein said. "We're shut down now, and we're working with USDA to satisfy them that we can reopen it."

The original Sep 27 recall covered 5 days' worth of ground beef from one production line at the plant, Klein said. On the USDA's recommendation, the company expanded the recall to cover production from the plant's other line for the same period, he said.

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) said the packages subject to recall have "sell by" dates of Aug 29 to 31 and Sep 1 and 2. They also include the establishment code "EST. 20654" inside the USDA inspection seal. The packages were distributed nationwide to retail stores, hotels, restaurants, and other institutions, the FSIS said.

The E coli outbreak was linked to Emmpak Foods by epidemiologic investigations in Minnesota and Wisconsin, according to state health officials. One Minnesota patient and two Wiconsin patients had some leftover ground beef, which was found to contain a strain of E coli that matched a strain in clinical samples from the patients. The meat came from retail stores that bought all their ground beef from Emmpak Foods, a Minnesota official said this week.

Klein said the packaging for the leftover beef had been thrown out. "Since we didn't know the 'sell by' date on the package because there wasn't any, we essentially tried to bracket a whole week" of production with the recall, Klein said. The company initially recalled all the meat from a production line that produces case-ready trays of beef, he said. "As the USDA investigation continued, they noted that the plant had a second line," he explained. "Although it produces a different kind of ground beef product—tubes as opposed to case-ready trays—USDA felt it should all be recalled, which led to the expansion to 2.8 million pounds."

At USDA's recommendation, Emmpak is increasing its microbiologic testing of beef destined for grinding, Klein said. "For several years at our slaughter plant, which is three blocks from our ground beef plant, we tested 1 in 300 carcasses," he said. "Because we had control over the quality assurance of those carcasses as they were cut up, we used that as our pretest" for meat that was to be ground. But the USDA felt that was insufficient, so now the company is testing both intact carcasses and the trimmings used to make hamburger, he said.

Earlier this week, Minnesota and Wisconsin health officials said the E coli outbreak included 56 cases in those two states plus Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, and New York. That included 34 cases in Wisconsin.

Klein commented that illness cases which would have been seen as isolated a few yeas ago can now be linked into outbreaks through molecular fingerprinting with pulsed-field gel electrophoresis. He said Minnesota and Wisconsin are "in the vanguard" of such testing, and more and states are adopting the technique. "I think it's good for the public health," he added. "We do a lot to keep it [contaminated beef] from going out the door to begin with, but unfortunately at this point there's no silver bullet, which is why there are warning labels on packages."

See also:

Oct 2 FSIS news release
http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OA/recalls/prelease/pr086-2002.htm

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