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USDA says Nebraska Beef Slow to Act on E. coli Warnings

Jul 8, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP First, a USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) investigation at processing plants that collaborated with Nebraska Beef Ltd. revealed E. coli contamination occurred because some production practices took place under “insanitary” conditions.  Those conditions were found to be insufficient to prevent E. coli bacteria.  Now, federal officials are saying that Nebraska Beef responded slowly to warnings that its products might be tainted with the E. coli bacteria.

Nebraska Beef is the supplier to Kroger’s and is responsible for the 41 E. coli illnesses and dozens of hospitalizations that have taken place in Ohio and Michigan.  Meanwhile, a new E. coli outbreak is emerging in Georgia and its origin in under investigation by health officials there who are trying to determine if there is a link among the illnesses in all three states.  Nebraska Beef voluntarily recalled over 5 million pounds of meat in response to the E. coli threat.

Nebraska Beef was notified in the first half of June that two samples of its trim slated for use in ground beef had tested positive for E. coli, USDA spokeswoman Amanda Eamich said.  "The establishment didn't take appropriate actions when positives were found," Eamich said. "It's all about their ability to control E. coli 0157:H7."  The recalled beef was sold to wholesalers and distributors for further processing.  Because of this, consumer labels likely will not include the "EST 19336" code that identifies Nebraska Beef.

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.

Twenty-two people have been hospitalized since the first case of E. coli linked to the beef was identified May 30, according to the CDC.  One person developed a type of kidney failure called hemolytic-uremic syndrome, or HUS.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that E. coli sickens about 73,000 people and kills 61 annually in the United States; however, more cases are likely because the CDC estimates that for every incident of E. coli reported, 20 go unreported.  E. coli 0157:H7—a deadly form of E. coli--symptoms can include stomach cramps, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, dehydration, and fever and can cause severe illness and even death in humans.

Nebraska Beef expanded its voluntary recall include all 5.3 million pounds of meat produced for ground beef between May 16 and June 26, ten times the amount in the original recall which involved beef sent to Nebraska, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas.  It is not clear if any contaminated or recalled beef was sent to additional states, but contaminated beef was distributed in Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania; beef products were sent to Colorado and Texas for further processing.

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