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USDA Aims To Beef Up Scrutiny

More Inspector Training Sought To Prevent Recalls

Jan 12, 2003 | The Denver Post Federal meat inspectors with better training might have averted last summer's massive ConAgra beef recall, the nation's top food-safety official acknowledges.

Had inspectors known how to piece together dozens of E. coli findings at the Greeley slaughterhouse, they could have seen that a bigger problem was building and taken action, Elsa Murano told The Denver Post. Murano is the food-safety division chief in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As a result, the USDA is allocating $5 million in its upcoming budget to train 7,600 inspectors to look beyond individual contamination problems and detect lurking threats.

"The sooner our inspectors become aware of a potential for a problem at a plant, the sooner that they can connect the dots, the sooner we can do something that will possibly prevent a recall," Murano said.

Tests by workers at the former ConAgra slaughterhouse, now known as Swift & Co., found potentially lethal E. coli in beef 34 times in the months leading up to the July recall. Company officials told the USDA about their findings as they happened.

But instead of linking the 34 cases, inspectors were trained to deal with each E. coli finding separately, Murano said. They ensured that the contaminated meat wasn't turned into hamburger but didn't investigate further.

"An individual inspector could only see one adulterated bin of meat and dispose of it, but they couldn't step back to see that big picture to notice the frequency of (the E. coli) and see maybe something's not right," Murano said. "This plant was so big . . . none of them stepped up to put it all together."

The same could have happened at another plant, Murano said.

The White House has backed the USDA allocation, and it's expected to be in the budget President Bush sends to Congress in March, she said.

Murano's food-inspection safety service drew sharp criticism from consumer advocates and some in Congress for acting too slowly and feebly after inspectors found or learned of problems at the Greeley plant. Critics said the agency's rules tilted in favor of the beef industry and against consumers.

The specifics of the training have not been determined. It is also unclear whether the USDA now will dictate to inspectors exactly what contamination threshold must be reached in order to shutter problem plants. Privately, USDA inspectors have complained that they lacked guidelines telling them at what point contamination problems are so severe that meat processing must be stopped at a facility.

The Swift plant was closed for five days in November, four months after the recall and after inspectors cited the plant 19 times for allowing feces to taint meat.

Inspectors found contaminated meat more than two dozen times in the months leading up to, and shortly after, the recall.

The USDA is coming off of one of its worst years for meat recalls, logging the second- and third-largest in its history. The USDA has had at least one multimillion- pound recall each year since 1997, which Murano called "troubling."

ConAgra in July recalled 18.6 million pounds of ground beef because of concerns that it was contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, a potentially lethal organism from the feces of slaughtered cattle. Meat from the recall was blamed for sickening at least 47 people in 23 states, 17 of them in Colorado and for one death in Ohio.

That was followed in September by a 27 million-pound poultry recall by Wampler Foods in Pennsylvania because of listeria concerns.

"We want this as the opportunity to declare war on pathogens . . . and break the cycle of these big recalls," Murano said. "There's no way I'm content with multimillion-pound recalls every year."

The leader of the inspectors' union applauded the training proposal but said the agency shouldn't expect quick solutions.

"The $5 million isn't nearly enough," said Paul Johnson, acting chairman of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals. "They'll do a one-shot thing of training, and that's supposed to cure everything. It won't."

Swift referred questions about Murano's plan to the American Meat Institute, one of the leading industry trade groups. Officials there agreed better training is a good first step.

"What impact better training might have had on food safety outcomes and recalls will always remain a question," said Mark Dopp, the American Meat Institute's senior vice president for regulatory affairs. "We must do everything possible to train inspection and plant personnel."

Dopp said the scope of recalls has grown in the past year since the USDA required ConAgra to call back meat it couldn't prove was free of E. coli. That's because the plant couldn't prove untested meat it produced at the same time as beef found to have E. coli wasn't infected as well. Dopp suggests the USDA simply act as a recall monitor and adviser to meat companies.

"It is impossible to prove that E. coli O157:H7 is not there because it is impossible to test all of the product," Dopp said.

The USDA already has made some changes, such as requiring all beef plants to undergo random government testing for E. coli. Previously, plants could simply do their own E. coli checks.

The agency also has required slaughterhouses to come up with new ways to prevent E. coli from getting onto meat. Similar rules are being discussed for listeria and salmonella.

However, more is needed, Murano said.

For example, the USDA is seeking ways to help consumers determine whether meat in their freezer has been recalled, Murano said.

Currently information about where a company distributed meat that was later recalled is a business secret that the government can't disclose publicly. Consumer groups complained about that during the ConAgra recall.

"The industry and USDA woke up from ConAgra in a big way," Murano said. "The recall system is geared toward the plants and retailers to take the responsibility and go to the consumers, but it needs to be improved."

The former ConAgra plant has woken up, too.

The plant is opening its doors to visiting politicians, reporters and trade journalists.

"We want to prove to the world that there's nothing ugly going on behind the walls of this big, gray building," Swift plant manager Ron Gould told reporters during last week's inaugural tour.

Murano said industry as well as government must increase efforts to prevent E. coli contamination.

"They missed the big picture, too," she said of ConAgra's E. coli discoveries. "Too many times we see what we could have done, but these guys produce the food, and they knew this was a problem."

Tests did find E. coli in ConAgra beef 34 times before the recall. Who conducted the tests was key.

If just one USDA test found the pathogen, the agency would have begun intensive testing. The company could have been sanctioned, or even shut down, if it couldn't pass 15 consecutive E. coli tests.

But that didn't happen.

Instead, the company found the E. coli and the meat hadn't been shipped to stores, so the government rules didn't apply.

And the E. coli kept coming, an average of one positive test by the company every three days.

"I don't know how that rule ever came to be, allowing companies to be exempt from government testing," Murano said. "It shouldn't have ever happened."

The cattle industry is also making strides toward reducing E. coli before it ever reaches the slaughterhouse, said Dopp of the Meat Institute. Research is focusing on vaccines and treating cattle's drinking water.

"We believe we are on the brink of some major new on-farm technologies that will help reduce the pathogen significantly," Dopp said.

Murano said inspectors must be more closely monitored as well as better trained.

The USDA in October began using a computer program to track inspector performance so supervisors can ensure "that we don't miss the big picture again," Murano said.

"Inefficient inspectors shouldn't remain on the job," she said.

The inspectors' union has filed a grievance opposing the plan.

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