Company expands beef recall, counters USDA criticism

Jul 8, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – Nebraska Beef, Ltd., recently expanded a recall of its beef amid reports that its production practices might have been inadequate for controlling Escherichia coli O157:H7, as the number of patients sickened in a two-state outbreak rose to 41.

On Jul 3 the Omaha company expanded its Jun 30 recall to include 5.3 million pounds of its beef, including all trim and other products intended for use in ground beef, produced between May 16 and Jun 26, according to a press release from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The company's previous recall applied only to 531,707 pounds of trim, chuck, and other components.

According to trace-back investigation findings, Nebraska Beef supplied beef to certain Kroger grocery stores in Michigan and Ohio. The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) said ongoing epidemiologic and trace-back investigation findings prompted the expanded recall.

According to a previous FSIS statement, ground beef samples from two federally inspected establishments supplied by Nebraska Beef and multiple samples of Kroger ground beef from patients' homes were contaminated with E coli matching the outbreak strain

The expanded recall by Nebraska beef prompted the Kroger Co. to expand its own ground beef recall on Jul 3. Previously Kroger had recalled ground beef from stores in Michigan and parts of Ohio with sell-by dates between May 21 and Jun 8. The company didn't specify how much ground beef was subject to either recall.

USDA faults safety practices, response time
The FSIS said it found that Nebraska Beef's production practices didn't adequately control E coli O157:H7. "The products subject to the recall may have been produced under unsanitary conditions," the USDA statement said.

Yesterday, Amanda Eamich, a USDA spokeswoman, said Nebraska Beef was initially alerted in the first half of June that two of its trim samples had tested positive for E coli O157:H7, but the company was slow to respond, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

However, Bill Lamson, a Nebraska Beef spokesman, said the company added another lactic acid bath to kill the pathogen at its Omaha processing plant and hired an independent laboratory to test its products, the AP reported.

He said Nebraska beef didn't believe the initial findings warranted a recall. "We're following their normal procedure," he told the AP.

Lamson told Meatingplace.com, a meat industry news Web site, that the company received notices from the FSIS on Jun 9 and Jun 17 and that the company reviewed its records and adjusted its processes, steps that he said addressed the problem.

He said the FSIS notices also suggested that other companies supplied meat used in ground beef that was the subject of Kroger's initial recall on Jun 25.

The company didn't learn that there was potential for a recall until Jun 28 when the USDA told the company that its investigation had linked Nebraska Beef to illnesses in Michigan and Ohio, Lamson told Meatingplace.com. "There is circumstantial evidence, but no tests have established a direct link," he said.

Eamich said Nebraska Beef has now made changes in its food safety plan to pass federal inspection and that the USDA will work with the company in the weeks ahead to bolster its safety plan, according to the AP report.

In October 2007, in the wake of a string of recalls that had nearly doubled from the previous year, the FSIS launched a plan to reduce E coli O157:H7 in ground beef. Measures ranged from speeding up planned safety enhancements, such as follow-up testing on high-risk processors, to new initiatives to control the pathogen during slaughter and processing. The safety plan also included a new safety inspection checklist.

Cases climb slowly
According to the most recent update on the outbreak from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of Jul 2, 41 cases had been linked to the outbreak, including 21 in Michigan and 20 in Ohio.

The latest illness onset date was Jun 20, which is 6 days later than listed in the CDC's last update. Twenty-two patients have been hospitalized, and one developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a potentially fatal kidney condition. No deaths have been reported.

See also:

Jul 3 CDC update
http://www.cdc.gov/ecoli/june2008outbreak/

Jul 3 USDA press release
http://www.fsis.usda.gov/News_&_Events/Recall_022_2008_expanded/index.asp

Jul 1 CIDRAP News story "Nebraska firm's beef linked to E coli outbreak"

Oct 23, 2007, CIDRAP News story "USDA announces plan to reduce E coli contamination in ground beef"

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