The federal government shut down the former ConAgra beef plant in Greeley on Friday after repeatedly finding feces smeared on meat over a period of several months.
The Denver Post has learned the government had already cited the plant 19 times since late August for allowing meat to become contaminated with feces, the favored breeding ground for the potentially lethal E. coli bacteria. Three of those violations occurred in the past week, inspectors told The Post.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture yanked its inspectors at the plant about 5 a.m. Friday after spotting contamination on beef carcasses. The USDA said it removed its inspectors “in the interest of public health” because the plant’s plans to ensure wholesome meat weren’t working.
The plant has been operating under a USDA warning, called a “notice of intended enforcement,” since July when it recalled 18.6 million pounds of beef because of E. coli contamination concerns. A threatened suspension was set aside to allow the plant to implement a plan that would keep meat free from fecal contamination.
Slaughterhouses cannot produce or sell beef without federal inspection or the USDA seal of approval. A plant is effectively shut down when the USDA suspends inspection.
The plant, now known as Swift & Co. and partly owned by Vail investor George Gillett, is expected to remain closed at least until Tuesday, Swift spokesman Jim Herlihy said.
“We are currently in negotiations with the USDA about when we can resume production,” Herlihy said Friday. “This is a regulatory issue, not a food-safety issue. There have been no allegations of contaminated product in commerce.”
The USDA inspectors concluded that “the plant’s preventive measures were ineffective or inadequate,” agency spokesman Steven Cohen said. “The number of violations show a breakdown with their program.”
Consumer groups praised the USDA’s shutdown but lamented the agency’s delay in taking action.
“These violations represent a real threat to the public health. The USDA is clearly, finally, being a tough cop,” said Caroline Smith- DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.
“But it seems like 19 warnings is probably too many given this plant’s history. Any speeder who gets that many warnings before getting a ticket feels as if they can speed forever.”
The plant had not scheduled beef production for Saturday, Sunday or Monday, Herlihy said.
The slaughterhouse, which employs 2,500 people, slaughters about 1.2 million cattle a year and produces several million pounds of beef a day, much of it shipped to Colorado stores.
Problems with contaminated meat aren’t new to the plant. The Post in September revealed that violations for dirty meat were found there more than two dozen times in the months leading up to and soon after the recall of millions of pounds of meat.
More than half of those violations since July 2001 were for allowing feces to contaminate beef carcasses. The rest were for meat contaminated with materials such as machine grease and floor dirt, or condensation, which could contain the pathogen listeria.
Just two days before Friday’s suspension, Swift officials said workers at the plant would have new authority to shut down production if they spotted potential food-safety hazards. Previously only supervisors could decide to stop a production line.
The USDA pulled about 15 of its inspectors Friday after finding beef carcasses smeared with feces. Inspectors said they had briefly shut down production several times in the past few weeks because of contamination, each time allowing it to resume when plant officials promised violations would not recur.
Inspectors were removed from the fabrication side about 5 a.m. Friday, followed at 9 a.m. by inspectors on the slaughter floor, inspectors at the plant said.
Fabrication is where sides of beef are carved into the various cuts of meat that end up on grocery store shelves. Ground beef is also made there from the trimmings that are left over.
By noon, Swift workers were being sent home, although the inspectors remained to watch USDA training videos about preventing workplace violence.
Before federal inspection is allowed to resume, slaughterhouses must prove substantial changes have been made in how they produce beef and that they can ensure contamination won’t happen again.
This is the first time the USDA has suspended inspection at the Greeley facility, a move the USDA does not do easily, although it has done it frequently. Nationally, this is the 128th time the USDA has suspended inspections at a facility it oversees. Most suspensions were for a few hours, but some have lasted weeks.
Even after E. coli contamination forced the ConAgra beef recall in July, at the time the second-largest recall in history, the Greeley plant did not miss a day’s production.
The recall was expanded to 18.6 million pounds when company records showed E. coli had been found in meat on 34 days going back to April. The original recall was for 354,200 pounds of ground beef that was produced on a single day.
The plant stopped making ground beef in early September, just days after the USDA found E. coli in ground beef there. The plant has not resumed ground beef production, although it has asked the USDA for permission to begin again.
Carcass trimmings used to make ground beef have been shipped to other locations, some of them Swift-owned plants, company officials said last month.
The Greeley plant’s recall dropped to third largest in October after the USDA and a Pilgrim’s Pride facility in Franconia, Pa., recalled 28 million pounds of listeria-contaminated poultry following an outbreak on the East Coast that left four dead and dozens hospitalized.
The Pilgrim plant was shut down for several days because federal inspectors found more listeria there.
Gillett, through his Booth Creek Management Corp., in September joined Dallas-based Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst to buy 54 percent of Greeley-based ConAgra Beef Co. for $1.4 billion. Gillett is chairman of the new business, which opted to operate under the name Swift & Co.
ConAgra Foods, one of the world’s largest food companies, still owns the other 46 percent.
A spokesman for Hicks, Muse refused to comment about the Greeley shutdown.