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Veneman pressed to explain delay in ConAgra meat recall as Smithfield recalls 100 tons of beef

(Friday, Sept. 20, 2002 -- CropChoice news) -- The following information is provided courtesy of the AgriBusiness Examiner, issue 191.


    EMILY GERSEMA, ASSOCIATED PRESS: The Agriculture Department has failed to adequately explain how it handled a recall of 19 million pounds of contaminated hamburger meat, some members of Congress say.

    The lawmakers --- Reps. Henry Waxman, Dem.-California; Mary Kaptur, Dem.- Ohio; Rosa DeLauro, Dem.-Connecticut.; and Sen. Richard Durbin Rep.-Illinois --- have sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, asking that her department explain why it failed to quickly recall the meat after initial tests proved it was contaminated with E. coli bacteria.

    They told Veneman in a letter [September 12] that Elsa Murano, the department's undersecretary for food safety, didn't answer important questions although she did release more details about the ConAgra Beef Co. recall in a letter she wrote to them on September 5.

    Murano didn't explain why the department's Food Safety and Inspection Service took nearly three months to stop the sale of the meat after tests in May and June showed it had E. coli bacteria, the lawmakers said. The Agriculture Department didn't issue a full recall until July 19.

    "We made these requests because ConAgra, one of the largest meat producers in the United States, may have had evidence of positive E. coli 0157:H7 results as early as mid-April," lawmakers wrote. Murano also didn't elaborate on ConAgra's actions, they noted.

    The politicians said they heard ConAgra hasn't been cooperating with meat inspectors since the recall. "We have heard reports that USDA asked ConAgra for the additional bacterial samples, but the company has refused to provide them. Is this true?" the congressional members asked Veneman.

    In addition, the lawmakers want to know if food safety officials are providing the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with enough information to link cases of human illness to the contaminated beef.

    Among their concerns, the lawmakers said they were alarmed that inspectors found safety problems at the ConAgra beef plant, as Murano's letter pointed out. They asked that Veneman's agency disclose what those deficiencies were. Alisa Harrison, an Agriculture Department spokeswoman, declined to comment on the letter, saying the agency hasn't had time to review it.

    The recall of meat from Greeley, Colorado.-based ConAgra was the country's second largest meat recall ever. Company officials did not return calls for comment. The Agriculture Department issued a nationwide recall because it was uncertain where the meat was sold. At the time of the recall, 17 people in Colorado had been sickened by the beef.


    MICHAEL DAVIS, THE VIRGINIAN PILOT: Meat giant Smithfield Foods Inc. has voluntarily recalled more than 100 tons of ground beef that may be contaminated with potentially deadly bacteria.

    The company's Moyer Packing Co. unit, based in Souderton, Pennsylvania., is pulling back 203,600 pounds of beef that could be tainted with E. coli. Smithfield bought the company when it entered the beef business last year.

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture rated the meat a "high" risk, the most severe, indicating a threat to consumer health.

    E. coli can cause diarrhea and dehydration and lead to kidney failure, coma and even death in children, the elderly and people with weak immune systems. Cooking meat to 160 degrees Fahrenheit kills the bacteria. No illnesses have been linked to the suspect meat, which is being pulled from shelves and returned to Moyer to be destroyed.

    Moyer recalled the ground beef after the agriculture department notified the company of a positive E. coli result at an unnamed establishment it supplied. Moyer's plant was sanitized over the before production resumed, the company said in a statement.

    The recalled meat was produced August 31. and sent to a manufacturer in Pennsylvania and to five grocery chains with stores around the eastern United States, including Virginia. Smithfield declined to disclose the name of retailers that may have received tainted meat, citing competitive pressures.

    "Customer lists are considered proprietary at all times," said David Bartlett, vice president of Washington, D.C.-based crisis management firm Rowan and Blewitt Inc., hired as a spokesman for Smithfield. "It has nothing to do with the recall." Bartlett recommended that concerned consumers check with their stores to see if they received ground beef from Moyer.

    The department of agriculture said companies typically keep retailers private during recalls. "Unfortunately, it's up to the company to release" the names of stores, said department spokesman Dan Puzo. . . .

    . Smithfield does not yet know how much ground beef may have been consumed or how much might be recovered, according to Bartlett, or how long the recall may take. "There's no word back yet" from retailers, he said.

    Markets often use beef from numerous sources together to produce their ground beef. So the Moyer meat could be distributed throughout products on grocers' shelves, requiring more than the recalled amount to be pulled. The recall is relatively minor by the standards of large national meatpackers.

    In July, ConAgra Foods Inc. was forced to make the second-largest beef recall in history, pulling 18.6 million pounds after 19 people became ill in the western Plains. In August 1997, Hudson Foods recalled 25 million pounds of frozen hamburger, some of which was tainted with E. coli.

    Smithfield, the world's biggest hog producer, acquired closely held Moyer in June 2001. That purchase plus the acquisition of Packerland Holdings Inc. have made Smithfield the nation's No. 5 beef processor, with about seven percent of the market.

    Moyer also recalled 253,350 pounds of ground beef in August 2000 and 346,700 pounds of ground beef in July 2000, both for potential E. coli contamination, USDA records show.

    Consumers with questions can call Kelly Romaniello, director of company relations, at (215) 723-5559. Consumers with other food safety questions can call the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at (800) 535-4555, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.