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USDA Questioned Over Tainted Beef

Jul 26, 2002 | AP

Some congressional Democrats are asking the Agriculture Department to explain why it took months to order a recall of 19 million pounds of hamburger meat suspected of harboring E. coli bacteria.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said while some of the meat had been contaminated in mid-April, it was not until July 19 that the Agriculture Department announced a full recall.

"The long delay between contamination and recall is striking," Waxman and the three other Democratic lawmakers wrote Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. They asked the department to explain the delay.

"It is a red flag for our nation's food safety system that more than three months passed between production of possibly contaminated meat and its eventual recall," the letter continued.

Steven Cohen, a spokesman for the department's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said the agency "acted with deliberate speed in response" to the beef contamination threat. He said the agency will fully answer the questions posed by the lawmakers.

The July 19 recall of 19 million pounds of hamburger meat from ConAgra Beef Co. of Greeley, Colo., was the country's second largest meat recall. The recall was nationwide because of uncertainty where the meet had been marketed.

At the time of the recall, 17 people in Colorado had been sickened by the beef. At least six other cases illnesses caused by E. coli were reported in California, Michigan, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming, although they were not definitely linked to ConAgra beef.

The letter from the Democratic lawmakers cited a report by The Denver Post that the Agriculture Department first suspected on May 14 that ConAgra meat might be tainted and that tests on the company's meat on June 12 and June 14 showed the presence of E. coli bacteria.

"If so, why did the USDA press release only refer to the positive results on June 19," the lawmakers asked. Even then, 11 days passed until an initial, limited recall was ordered on June 30, they said.

Cohen, the USDA official, said that the June 30 recall "came 10 days before the first cases of illness were reported and 15 days before the Centers for Disease Control confirmed a linkage to ground beef." He also said "no reported cases of illnesses have been linked to any meat other than that (covered by) the initial recall of June 30."

Eventually, the full recall, issued July 19, covered meat produced as late as July 11, the lawmakers noted. "Even as USDA was investigating E. coli contamination, ... contamination may have been going on," the lawmakers wrote Veneman.

While USDA was investigating what already had been found to be positive tests for the bacteria, "Americans fell ill from eating contaminated meat," wrote the lawmakers. And, they said, the Centers for Disease Control "first learned of the outbreak of human E. coli illness on July 10."

In addition to Waxman, ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, the letter was signed by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of a Governmental Affairs oversight subcommittee, and Reps. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, ranking Democrats on House subcommittees dealing with food safety.

The recall covered hamburger meat produced by the ConAgra plant between April 12 and July 11. ConAgra's facility in Colorado provides beef to grocery store chains, independent grocery stores, food service operators and restaurant owners across the country.

ConAgra initially recalled 354,000 pounds of fresh and frozen ground beef products on June 30 because of E. coli suspicions. ConAgra spokesman Jim Herlihy described the broader recall later as precautionary.

Veneman, at a July 19 news conference, also said the action "is being taken as a cautionary measure to ensure the protection of public health."

E. coli is a bacterium found in the intestinal tracts and feces of livestock. If it contaminates meat, it can lead to digestive illnesses and potentially death in humans.

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