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Topps Meat Company Ignored Meat Safety Standards Months Before Recall of E. Coli Tainted Ground Beef

Oct 23, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP

In the months before the Topps Meat Company ground beef recall, the meat processor had ignored critical safety measures to guard against E. coli contamination at its Elizabeth New Jersey plant. As a result, the Topps Meat Company’s lax attitude allowed millions of pounds of tainted beef to reach consumers across the country.  Now the resulting E. coli outbreak and recall that put the company out of business is raising serious questions about the ability of the federal government to insure the safety of the US food supply.

In 2002, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) pressured the meat industry to enact strict safeguards against E. coli 0157 H7, a deadly strain of the bacteria that sickens 73,000 people every year and causes 61 fatalities.   For several years, the new safety measures appeared to be working, as meat-related E. coli outbreaks and recalls declined.  But this year, the declining trend reversed.  The Topps Meat Company ground beef recall was only the largest of 16 meat recalls this year that involved E. coli contaminated beef.  While there could be many factors influencing the upturn in E. coli problems, it does appear that the meat industry is not always following the guidelines established by the USDA five years ago.

This was definitely the case with the Topps ground beef recall.  Federal inspectors have revealed that in the months prior to the recall, Topps was ignoring many standard safety procedures at its New Jersey plant.  For example, Topps had quit testing its meat for bacterial contamination once a month, and was only doing so three times per year.   What’s more, Topps did not require its domestic beef suppliers to test their meat, and the company often mixed tested and untested meat together.  Topps also got a substantial amount of meat from foreign suppliers – including countries where E. coli is known to be a problem.  But shockingly, federal guidelines don’t require some types of imported meat to be tested for bacteria.  

The worst thing about the lax safety procedures at the Topps Meat Company plant in New Jersey is that they were occurring right under the noses of USDA meat inspectors.  According to the agency, inspectors visited the plant on a daily basis and spent between one and two hours there each day.  Yet, the company was never cited over safety issues.  It wasn’t until E. coli tainted Topps ground beef had sickened dozens of people that the USDA took any action against the company.  And even then, the USDA waited 18 days after E. coli was found in Topps ground beef before issuing a recall.

The USDA now says that the Topps Meat Company ground beef recall has caused it to re-examine its inspection standards.  For instance, the USDA is now considering testing all meat imports for bacteria.   The agency has also directed its inspectors to conduct a nationwide survey of the steps other meat processors are taking to prevent E. coli contamination.   The USDA has also said it will be sending special teams to plants that have poor safety standards to “urge” them to take more adequate measures.

But critics of the USDA say that such a plan highlights one of its biggest problems – the USDA can only recommend that meat processors enact tougher safety measures.   It is that lack of enforcement power that allowed more than 21 million pounds of E. coli contaminated Topps Meat Company ground beef to sicken at least 40 people across the country.  And unless something is done to give the USDA more teeth, there will likely be more meat-related E. coli outbreaks in the future.


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