Washington — A ground beef recall over the Columbus Day weekend followed, within days, an unrelated food poisoning outbreak that sickened scores of people and put one meat company out of business.
Cargill Meat Solutions, a division of Cargill, voluntarily recalled 845,000 pounds of frozen ground beef patties produced over five days in August at the company's Butler, Wis., facility. The recall followed an investigation into four illnesses by the Minnesota departments of health and agriculture, and a separate assessment conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the Butler plant. The Minnesota cases involved people who got sick after eating American Chef's Selection Angus Beef Patties purchased at Sam's Club stores in the state. Authorities also believe at least one Wisconsin resident who fell ill after eating beef was linked to the Minnesota cases.
“We initiated this recall based on preliminary data,” said Cargill spokesman Mark Klein. “We take it very seriously.”
Early last week, Klein said he had taken a number of calls from Cargill's other retail customers and consumers wondering if they should throw out their beef. Klein said he had no reason to believe the recall would be expanded.
Separately, a relatively small meat supplier could not weather the economic impact of recalling 21.7 million pounds of frozen ground beef, representing a year's worth of items the company produced for supermarkets and mass merchandisers. Founded in 1940, the Elizabeth, N.J.-based Topps Meat Co. announced it was going out of business, effective Oct. 5. It had ranked among the nation's top suppliers of frozen meat patties. The company's products were linked to a multi-state outbreak of E. coli infections involving more than 30 people. The cases prompted a number of lawsuits against Topps and some of its retail customers that sold the contaminated meat.
“In one week we have gone from the largest U.S. manufacturer of frozen hamburgers to a company that cannot overcome the economic reality of a recall this large,” said Anthony D'Urso, chief operating officer. “We sincerely regret the impact this will have on our employees, our customers and suppliers, and the community.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Inspection Service found the company's E. coli 0157:H7 controls were inadequate, and FSIS issued a notice of suspension for the raw ground processes Sept. 26.
While the Topps case was notable, meat industry officials said they are more concerned by an overall spike in the number of meat recalls and illnesses associated with ground beef this year — and their own inability to explain the increase.
“For five consecutive years we've reduced the prevalence of [E. coli] 0157:H7 in ground beef,” said Jim Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute Foundation, Washington. “We've had a 42% reduction, and there's been a corresponding reduction in illnesses with 0157. What clearly causes concern is that we've had more recalls than we've had in past years, and more have been related to illnesses, not just a positive sample in the product.”
The federal government's slow response to the Topps case drew criticism and promises to fix the problem. The USDA waited 18 days after a preliminary test showed the meat was contaminated with E. coli bacteria before concluding that a recall was required on Sept. 25. The test was performed on meat taken from a Florida victim's freezer. Officials said they could not take action with only preliminary test results. Voicing dissatisfaction with the way the case was handled, officials said they would examine their protocols to see what can be done to improve future responses to outbreaks of illness.
“There is room for improvement, and we intend to act on the findings of our review immediately,” said Richard Raymond, the undersecretary for food safety with USDA's FSIS. “We know that we can do better, and we are actively engaging with our public health partners at the federal, state and local levels.”
Meat plants will come under more scrutiny by USDA inspectors, officials said. The USDA also plans to establish a stronger “threshold” for taking regulatory action sooner when there is evidence of illness linked to USDA-inspected products.
The Topps case has prompted a number of lawsuits. The parents of a Florida teenager who became seriously ill after eating a Topps hamburger sued Wal-Mart Stores, where they purchased the meat, said Scott Schlesinger, the attorney who filed the suit. Schlesinger contends the retailer did not notify customers promptly after the USDA got a positive preliminary test result for E. coli on Sept. 7.
The recent cases bring back memories for William Marler, a leading Seattle-based attorney for victims of food poisoning. From 1993 to 2002, Marler and his firm, Marler Clark, represented thousands of victims of food poisoning, including many cases involving E. coli and beef. Then, in 2003, the cases abruptly stopped, probably as a result of new precautionary measures taken by meat processors to cut down on contamination, Marler said.
“I was happy without the work,” he said.
In February, Marler even touted the meat industry for its successful work to reduce E. coli contamination during a speech in front of a group of California spinach and lettuce growers.
“I told them to do what the meat industry was doing,” Marler said. “You could put me out of business.” Now, however, Marler said, “I feel like I'm reliving my life.”