FSIS, ConAgra share blame for massive 2002 beef recall

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Oct 3, 2003 (CIDRAP News) – A report by the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) inspector general blames both federal meat inspectors and ConAgra Beef Co. for errors that led to a multistate outbreak of Escherichia coli O157:H7 infections and an 18 million–pound ground beef recall last year.

USDA meat inspectors and the company largely ignored evidence of E coli O157:H7 contamination that began cropping up at the Greeley, Colo., plant in January 2001, more than a year before the recall and illness outbreak in May and June of 2002, according to the report. The plant was later sold to Swift Foods Co.

"Our audit found that neither ConAgra nor FSIS [the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service] effectively fulfilled their responsibilities" under the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system, states the report from the office of Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong. HACCP has been the guiding strategy for the federal meat inspection program since 1998.

The report says the FSIS cited ConAgra for fecal contamination on beef carcasses many times before the recall but took no strong enforcement action and that most FSIS inspectors at the time of the recall were not competent to evaluate the plant's HACCP program. The inspector general also concluded that poor record-keeping and red tape made the recall slow and ineffective.

In a letter to Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., Fong said the FSIS generally agreed with her findings and recommendations and has taken some corrective steps. Waxman, ranking minority member of the House Committee on Government Reform, called the report "a scathing indictment of our food safety system." He added, "While some of the flaws in USDA policy identified by the OIG [Office of the Inspector General] have been corrected, many persist to the present day. . . . Congress should act to protect the safety of our food supply."

In a statement yesterday, FSIS Administrator Dr. Garry L. McKee described the ConAgra problems as an isolated case and said HACCP enforcement has improved substantially since the recall. "While we welcome the work that went into this report, FSIS feels it reflects conditions that existed more than one year ago at a single plant," he said. "Those conditions were not reflective of HACCP enforcement at the time, nor do they bear any resemblance to the state of HACCP enforcement programs today."

At least 46 people in 16 states became ill from contaminated meat linked with the ConAgra plant, according to the report, which was requested by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. ConAgra initially recalled 354,000 pounds of ground beef in late May of 2002; a month later the recall was expanded to 18 million pounds.

"Data was available to both ConAgra and FSIS in the period prior to the recall (January 2001 to the expanded recall) that indicated E. coli O157:H7 was becoming a continuous problem at ConAgra," states the report's executive summary.

At the time, the ConAgra plant and others that did their own pathogen testing under HACCP plans were exempt from FSIS testing, according to the report. (That policy was discontinued in September 2002.) However, ConAgra's HACCP system was designed with the assumption that E coli O157:H7 contamination was unlikely. In its HACCP program, the company found no E coli O157:H7 on beef carcasses in 2001 and 2002. But "non-HACCP tests" of beef trim, used in ground beef, showed contamination in at least 63 cases in 2002.

FSIS inspectors knew of some of the E coli O157:H7 findings, but they didn't pursue the issue because they believed they lacked authority to review nongovernment tests, the report states. Also, since the tests weren't part of the HACCP program, inspectors thought they couldn't use the findings to require ConAgra to reassess its HACCP system.

Before the recall, the FSIS issued "multiple noncompliance citations" to ConAgra for fecal contamination of meat but did little else to stop it. The agency "continually allowed ConAgra to introduce superficial stopgap measures, such as increasing supervision or retraining an employee," the report says. It notes that FSIS has no policy specifying what level of noncompliance should trigger enforcement.

Both the FSIS and companies that processed beef from the ConAgra plant were poorly prepared for a recall, according to the report. Two grinding plants that used ConAgra beef had no recall plans on the books, and one of them couldn't readily determine which of its customers had received the recalled product. Under FSIS policy, inspectors had to get permission from the FSIS Technical Services Center before they could take samples at grinding plants for testing to trace the source of contamination. That permission was delayed, contributing to a week-long delay in the recall and increasing the amount of beef recalled.

The report also says FSIS officials stated that most FSIS plant inspectors responsible for reviewing HACCP plans were not sufficiently trained for the task. The agency has begun to remedy that problem, but it still "does not want or plan to have approval authority over establishment HACCP plans."

Among some 31 detailed recommendations, the report advises the FSIS to:

  • Make sure it has access to all pathogen and microbial testing results, including tests conducted for customers
  • Improve recall procedures by ensuring that ground beef is traceable from manufacturing to the point of sale
  • Set criteria for enforcement action to stop repetitive violations
  • Instruct inspectors to take control of meat contaminated with E coli O157:H7 and ensure that it is properly processed or destroyed

During and after the recall, the FSIS took a number of steps to strengthen its inspection procedures, the report notes. In October 2002, the agency ordered meat companies to reassess their HACCP plans on the assumption that E coli O157:H7 contamination is reasonably likely to occur. Also, the agency has begun comprehensive reviews of HACCP plans and food safety systems.

The report says the inspector general accepts the FSIS's proposed corrective actions in response to 10 of the 31 specific recommendations. But the document says the agency's responses to the other 21 recommendations are not acceptable because it did not promise specific actions.

McKee's statement and an accompanying FSIS release listed steps the FSIS has taken to improve meat safety since the ConAgra recall. Since the agency revoked the policy that exempted some plants from FSIS pathogen testing a year ago, "Every plant in America that slaughters or processes beef products is subject to rigorous agency testing for E coli O157:H7," McKee said.

He added that FSIS personnel now are "systematically reviewing all plant-generated testing data and other information to better determine whether plants' food safety systems are meeting HACCP requirements." And to facilitate recalls, the agency took steps to speed the process of identifying the supplier of contaminated meat, McKee said.

See also:

Statement by FSIS Administrator Garry McKee

FSIS summary of relevant initiatives and policy changes since July 2002

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