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Many Red Flags Preceded a Hamburger Recall in the U. S.

October 23, 2007
Christopher Drew & Andrew Martin

Over the summer, as Americans fired up their grills, the Topps Meat factory here scrambled to produce thousands of frozen hamburger patties for Wal-Mart and other customers, putting intense pressure on workers.

As output rose, federal regulators said in interviews, the company was neglecting critical safeguards meant to protect consumers. Three big batches of hamburger contaminated with a potentially deadly germ emerged from the plant, making at least 40 people sick and prompting the second-largest beef recall in history.

Topps is now out of business, but the case points up broader problems in the U.S. system for protecting consumers from food-borne illness.

Five years ago, the government demanded more stringent safeguards against contamination because of a deadly form of the germ E. coli.

But federal regulators now acknowledge that the controls are not working in some meat plants. They are trying to figure out what went wrong and how to overcome the dangers.

In the case of Topps, the government has determined that the company reduced its testing of ground beef and neglected other safety measures in the months before the recall.

The Topps case is the most serious of 16 recalls this year involving E. coli contamination of beef. That is a sharp increase from 2005 and 2006, and the resurgence of the pathogen raises questions about whether the Agriculture Department has given the meat industry too much leeway to police itself.

"We're beginning to feel that the 2002 guidelines have not been enacted to the maximum," Dr. Richard Raymond, the Agriculture Department's under secretary for food safety, said in an interview in Washington.

While noting that the amount of harmful E. coli in beef may be increasing as part of a natural cycle or for other reasons outside the control of the meat industry, Raymond said that "some of the plants that may have had less-than-stellar systems in place are getting caught."

Two years ago, after an 8-year-old girl in Albany County, New York, was sickened by Topps ground beef, the Agriculture Department scrutinized the Elizabeth plant and found relatively few problems. But since then, the department said, Topps cut its microbial testing on finished ground beef from once a month to three times a year, a level the department considers inadequate.

Federal investigators said they had recently learned that the company failed to require adequate testing on the raw beef it bought from its domestic suppliers, and it sometimes mixed tested and untested meat in its grinding machines.

The Agriculture Department acknowledged that its safety inspectors, who were in the Topps plant for an hour or two each day, never cited the company for these problems.

Additionally, Topps, like many other beef processors, had bought an increasing amount of meat from overseas.

Some types of meat from foreign countries - where E. coli has not been prevalent - are not required to be tested for contamination. But the Agriculture Department said the Topps case had prompted it to consider requiring such checks.

In response to the problems, the Agriculture Department on Oct. 12 directed its inspectors to conduct a nationwide survey of what meat plants are doing to fight E. coli, and it plans to send special assessment teams into any plants that seem to be lagging to urge them to adopt more stringent measures.

"When someone says we are a toothless tiger and we are not doing anything, this is an example of something we are doing that I believe is making the food supply safer," Raymond said.

While the government has long allowed meat plants to establish their own safety plans, Raymond added that "we haven't shut the door" on setting mandatory standards for E. coli testing and prevention.

Consumer groups and other critics say it is startling that the agency does not have a better handle on the problems, which they see as emblematic of a cozy relationship between the Agriculture Department and the meat industry.

Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, said the Agriculture Department's approach to enforcement was "haphazard, catch as catch can." She added, "They just lay it out and make recommendations" that are "summarily ignored."

Contributing reporting were Ken Belson and Michael Barbaro in New York, Nate Schweber in Elizabeth, New Jersey and David Staba in Buffalo, New York.