After Reaching Pinnacle, Beef Recall Leads Topps To Close

Friday, October 5th 2007, 6:58 pm
By: News On 6

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) _ It took 67 years to build Topps Meat Co. into one of the country's largest suppliers of frozen beef patties; it took just six days to bring it down.

Topps, which began grinding beef before the nation entered World War II and eventually had its products sold in stores across the country, announced on Friday that it was shutting down.

Closure of the privately held, Elizabeth-based company puts 87 employees out of work and comes after Topps was forced to issue the second-largest beef recall in U.S. history on Sept. 29.

The culprit was 21.7 million pounds of frozen beef patties _ an entire year of production _ that may have been tainted with potentially fatal E. coli bacteria.

The Topps recall raised questions about whether the U.S. Agriculture Department should have acted quicker to encourage a recall, and on Thursday, top USDA officials said they would speed warnings in the future.

Thirty-two people in eight states had E. coli infections matching the strain found in the Topps patties, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. None have died.

Topps conceded that much of the recalled meat had already been eaten, and on Friday expressed regret that its product had been linked to illnesses. ``We hope and pray for the full recovery of those individuals,'' said Topps chief operating officer Anthony D'Urso, a member of the family that founded the company in 1940.

``This is tragic for all concerned,'' D'Urso said in a statement.

Workers left the plant in small groups Friday afternoon, most carrying personal belongings.

Evelyn Hidalgo, who worked for a year in personnel at the plant, described the mood there Friday as ``very somber.'' She added, ``Everybody came in this morning like it was a regular day. Then we had a meeting and that was it. It's heartbreaking.''

Vivian Quinones, who carried a plastic garbage bag of gear, said she had only worked at the plant two years. ``I have to start over again,'' she said.

Topps, which halted production Sept. 26, is not the first meat company shuttered by a recall. Hudson Foods Co. closed its plant in Columbus, Neb., after it agreed in 1997 to destroy 25 million pounds of hamburger in the largest U.S. meat recall after E. coli was found in the ground beef. The plant later reopened with new owners.

Topps faces at least two lawsuits filed since the recall; one from the family of an upstate New York girl who became ill, and one seeking class-action status on behalf of all people who bought or ate the hamburgers. The family of a Florida girl who suffered kidney failure sued Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which is among chains that sold patties made by Topps. On Friday, the companies again said they will not comment on the suits.

The closing, or any subsequent bankruptcy, does not derail the lawsuits, said William D. Marler, a lawyer for the family of 8-year-old Emily McDonald, of North Colonie, N.Y. She was hospitalized for two days after eating a hamburger Aug. 17 at a barbecue.

``Bankruptcy will slow the process down, but it does not mean that people will not be compensated,'' Marler said.

The problem came to light on Sept. 25, when the New York State Department of Health issued an alert warning consumers that some Topps hamburgers may be contaminated with E. coli strain O157:H7. Topps recalled 331,582 pounds of its frozen hamburgers that day.

On Sept. 29, Topps expanded the recall to 21.7 million pounds of its frozen hamburgers after further evidence from the New York health department indicated a wider problem.

D'Urso said that a few employees will remain at the site to help USDA scientists investigate the source of the E. coli outbreak.

The bacteria, which can be fatal to humans, is harbored in the intestines of cattle and can also get on their hides. Improper butchering and processing can cause the E. coli to get onto meat.

Thorough cooking, to at least 160 degrees internal temperature, can destroy the bacteria.

Topps gets beef parts from slaughterhouses, grinds them, forms the meat into patties and freezes them. Topps, which claimed to be the leading U.S. maker of frozen hamburger patties, said it sells its products to supermarkets and institutions such as schools, hospitals, restaurants and hotels.

Not everyone was worried about eating Topps beef.

Employees had a cookout Friday and Topps hamburgers were on the menu, said Archimedes Antigua, 58, who added that workers were assured the meat was safe. ``People just don't know how to handle it'' through proper cooking, said Antigua, who said he worked there 36 years. ``There's nothing wrong with our product.''