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Firm At Center of E. Coli Outbreak Wasn't Testing Beef Trim

Nov 13, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP An E. coli outbreak that has killed 2 people has been linked to a ground beef processor that, according to The New York Times, stopped testing its ingredients years ago under pressure from beef trim suppliers.

As we've reported previously, Fairbank Farms of Ashville, New York - owned by AFA Foods - recalled more than 500,000 pounds of ground beef because of potential E. coli contamination.  At the time the recall was issued, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) said that there was an association between the fresh ground beef products subject to recall and illnesses in Connecticut, Maine and Massachusetts.   It is now suspected that many as 500 cases of E. coli O157:H7may be tied to the recalled ground beef.

According to The New York Times, despite the fact that the USDA banned E. coli  0157:H7 in 1994, meat companies are only  encouraged, not required, to test ingredients.  Earlier this fall, a Times investigation found that many trim suppliers actually bar ground processors from testing their beef trim prior to use out of fear that the discovery of E. coli will force a recall.   As a result, most ground beef is tested as a finished product, which can make it difficult to determine the original source of E. coli if contamination is found.

This is apparently how AFA handles testing,  according to The New York Times.  Officials with AFA confirmed that its plants - including Fairbank Farms -  require slaughterhouses to test their trim and that the plants  tests samples of  finished ground beef as frequently as every 10 minutes.  Like many processors, Fairbank Farms uses beef trim from various suppliers.  According to the Times, in 2007, the plant could not determine the source of E. coli contamination when it was found in finished ground beef.

The products subject to the Fairbank Farms  recall were sent to retailers including Trader Joe’s, Price Chopper, Lancaster and Wild Harvest, Shaw’s, BJ’s, Ford Brothers, and Giant Food Stores. The recall was for distribution centers in eight states, but Fairbank Farms said some retailers may have sent the affected beef to other states. According to the FSIS, the meat involved in this recall is marked with “EST. 492″ inside the USDA mark of inspection. The recalled products were packaged on September 15 and 16 and may have been labeled at the retail stores with a sell-by date from September 19 through 28. Consumers should ask at their point of purchase if the products they have purchased are subject to recall.

According to The New York Times, Trader Joe's, which has terminated its relationship with AFA since the Fairbank Farm recall, has since said it was embracing trim testing even though it has had to recall only a small amount of fresh ground beef and knew of no illnesses among its customers.

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