SMYRNA, Tenn. -- A Kroger store here removed all of its ground beef from the fresh meat case after a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector found a first positive of 0157:H7 E. coli in a sample.
Subsequent testing over Memorial Day Weekend failed to turn up a definite positive test result for the presence of E. coli in the product, but by then the chain had cooperated with state departments in a recall of the product, and had also removed and replaced the store's meat grinder.
The discrepancy between the earlier positive and later negative test results did not provoke concern at Kroger about the validity or procedures of testing, according to Paul Bernish, spokesman for the Cincinnati-based chain.
"What we're left to conclude is that finding the E. coli is like finding a needle in a haystack," he said.
The net effect on the chain was minimal, he added. "Beef sales were down some in that area of Tennessee, but not much. Hopefully, that will be a temporary situation."
Kroger was notified of the first positive by USDA on May 19. At that point, the Tennessee Department of Health began to proceed with its own testing, taking samples both directly from the grinder and from the chub.
On May 23, the agency issued a joint announcement along with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, alerting all media statewide that it was recalling all ground beef purchased at one of the two stores operated here by Kroger.
The chain was cooperative and responded quickly, said state officials.
"As soon as the sample turned up presumptive positive, Kroger voluntarily and immediately took all of the suspect products off the shelf," said Cynthia Crook, a
spokesperson for the Tennessee Dept. of Agriculture.
Crook added that the store also immediately replaced the meat grinder from which the product sample in question was taken.
"Once we were informed by USDA, we worked with the appropriate departments to recall all of the ground beef sold from that location," Bernish confirmed.
"We have in place a company-wide HACCP program to maintain the quality and integrity of the meat supply," Bernish said. "But with E. coli, even the most stringent standards can't prevent [this kind of thing] from happening. We take every precaution we can."
Bernish noted that there had been no incidence of illness associated with ground beef purchased from the Kroger unit in Smyrna. He added that nothing like this has ever happened before with beef sold from Kroger stores.
Further sampling is being undertaken and results are expected by next week. Crook expressed relief at the more recent negative result, and expressed optimism about the expected outcome of further testing.
"It looks good," she said. "It's very positive that it was negative."
While awaiting the second set of results, Crook had expressed satisfaction with the system itself.
"We feel pretty good about the whole thing. From our perspective, it shows that the samplings work; there's been no report of illness, and to me, that says we're doing things right."