E. Coli Warnings and Recalls Seriously DelayedJul 14, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
Reports in central Ohio began emerging in mid-June that residents were falling ill from E. coli. Meanwhile, on June 9, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) told Nebraska Beef executives that samples of Nebraska Beef were among those from a group of processing companies whose meat tested positive for E. coli. Dozens were sickened in Michigan and Ohio, many were hospitalized, and at least one person developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a kidney disorder responsible for most deaths linked to E. coli O157:H7 infections.
The lag times prompted Ohio Agriculture Director Robert Boggs to announced he will no longer wait until other agencies or companies are ready to announce tainted products identified through lab tests run by his department. In this case, Ohio had test results confirming E. coli-contaminated meat on June 23; however, two days passed before that information was publicly released and Kroger Grocery issued a recall. Effective immediately, the Agriculture Department will notify other parties of test results, and if those parties haven't made the information public within three hours, or no later than 4 p.m., the department will issue a release. Exemptions might exist for food samples from federal agencies, Boggs added. "I think the industry should have been more forthcoming more quickly in giving information to the public that product in their stores had been contaminated," Boggs said.
Also, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer recently announced a plan to advise consumers which retail stores sold products recalled by meat and poultry companies. A group of U.S. senators, including Ohio's Sherrod Brown, requested this change five months ago. "There may be a gap in time between the need for a recall and the recall itself, but there should be no gap in public information," Brown said in a release.
While Kroger chose to volunteer information that its products were tainted, no other retailers publicly linked themselves to Nebraska Beef, a Kroger supplier. And, although Kroger issued its recall on June 25 for meat with sell-by dates as late as June 8, it took Nebraska Beef five days to issue its first recall of 532,000 pounds of meat sent to companies in seven states. Over one week later, on July 3, Nebraska Beef issued a recall for 5.3 million pounds of its meat it said could be tainted and shouldn't be eaten.
With the announcement of the expanded recall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that Nebraska Beef's production practices were insufficient to protect meat from contamination, products might have been produced in unsanitary conditions, and Nebraska Beef was lax in its response that its meat might be contaminated. Nebraska Beef has been involved in other issues where questionable practices and food contamination were found to have occurred. In 2003, the USDA went to court to try to shut down Nebraska Beef’s Omaha packing plant after citing it for numerous violations. Three years later, Minnesota public health and USDA officials linked an E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak in ground beef that killed a Minnesota woman to Nebraska Beef. In 2007, Nebraska Beef sued the USDA saying its inspectors had unfairly targeted it.