USDA changes notification policy after E. coli outbreak in Colorado

Tuesday, July 16th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Federal inspectors will begin notifying meat processors immediately when they suspect beef may be contaminated as a result of an E. coli outbreak that has sickened at least 18 people.

The policy change comes after the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service acknowledged a 12-day lag from the time it first suspected ground beef had been tainted with E. coli, until the time the producer, ConAgra Beef Co., based in Greeley, Colo., was notified and a recall issued.

``This is deeply troubling,'' Linda Swacina, acting administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service said in a statement Monday.

As a result, Swacina said that inspectors will now notify a meat producer verbally and in writing as soon as a positive E. coli sample is discovered in ground beef that has been sent to a retailer or grinder.

``This will allow all the suppliers to take proactive steps without waiting for results from the FSIS investigation,'' Swacina said.

The FSIS has also dispatched an investigation team to the ConAgra plant in Greeley which was found to be the source of the tainted meat.

Tests taken June 12 and June 14 at Galligan's Wholesale Meat Co. in Denver showed the meat was contaminated with E. coli. On June 24, follow-up tests conducted to determine the source indicated meat from the ConAgra plant was the source of the contamination.

But it wasn't until June 29 that ConAgra was notified its meat had been contaminated, and the company recalled 354,200 pounds of ground beef the next day.

FSIS spokesman Steven Cohen said that, under the new policy, ConAgra and other producers that supplied meat to Galligan's would have been notified of the contamination immediately after the first test results came back.

``Any information that we have that would give reason to believe that our products might be suspect would be welcome and the sooner we have that information the sooner we can respond to it.,'' said ConAgra spokesman Jim Herlihy.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the change should benefit plants and consumers and praised the FSIS for their action.

``The government has responded swiftly. It's unfortunate it has taken this kind of tragedy,'' she said.

Galligan's had put a hold on distribution of meat form the tainted batch after the June 12 test was taken, but other retailers sold the contaminated ConAgra meat before the recall was issued.

The tainted ConAgra beef was shipped to Colorado, Alabama, Virginia, Maryland, New Mexico, Kansas, Michigan, Texas, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, New York, California, Illinois, Iowa, Tennessee, New Jersey, Minnesota, Arizona, Idaho.

Eighteen people _ 17 Colorado residents and a South Dakota child _ have become ill from eating the beef.

E. coli can cause bloody diarrhea and intense abdominal cramps. Children and the elderly are at most risk for hospitalization. Proper cooking can kill E. coli.