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Cargill Expands Beef Recall, Shuts Plant Amid E. Coli Fears

Oct 4, 2002 | The Wall Street Journal Cargill Inc., joining the list of meatpackers battered by food-safety mistakes, sharply expanded its recall of ground beef potentially tainted with E. coli bacteria to 2.8 million pounds, Friday's Wall Street Journal reported.

The Agriculture Department, under pressure from Congress to crack down on meat sanitation, also took the unusual step of indirectly forcing the closely held commodity-processing company to temporarily close the Milwaukee hamburger plant linked to 57 cases of food poisoning in several Midwestern states.

The department suspended its inspection operations at the plant, which is part of the Emmpak Foods Inc. business acquired by Cargill in August 2001. By federal law, only federally inspected meat can cross state lines.

Cargill spokesman Mark Klein said it isn't clear when the Milwaukee plant, which employees 160 people, will reopen.

People familiar with the matter said the plant shutdown reflects Agriculture Department officials' concern that they didn't get enough information from Cargill when deciding the size of the initial recall 416,000 pounds announced Sept 27. Agency officials also are investigating whether Cargill was testing beef often enough for the pathogen. Mr. Klein said Cargill officials acted properly.

The food-poisoning outbreak was caused by O157:H7, a virulent strain of E. coli that causes bloody diarrhea and dehydration. Contamination occurs when cattle manure, which harbors E. coli, is spilled onto meat during slaughter.

Cargill, Minneapolis, owns the nation's second-biggest beef producer, behind Tyson Foods Inc.

As with most ground-beef recalls lately, the warning does little to limit the size of the outbreak. Most of the tainted meat probably has been consumed. The Agriculture Department said the beef was produced from Aug. 20 through Aug. 24.

It has been a difficult year for food safety. In July, an E. coli outbreak forced ConAgra Foods Inc. to recall 19 million pounds of ground beef produced by a Colorado meatpacking plant as far back as April. The tardiness of the recall, the second-largest of its type in U.S. history, so embarrassed the Agriculture Department that the agency acknowledged that E. coli contamination was a bigger problem than originally thought, and promised more pressure on meatpackers to quash the pathogen.

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