A Nebraska plant that produced possibly hazardous hamburger patties has been closed and is recalling an estimated 25 million pounds of the product, a huge leap in the possible scope of the contamination.
E. coli bacteria contamination originated outside the plant, at the slaughterhouse, but the massive recall is needed because of problems with meat handling, record keeping and safety testing at the operation, Agriculture Department officials said Thursday.
The Columbus plant will not open until the company has adopted “far more stringent safety standards that we have specifically laid out for them based on what we have found in our investigation,” Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said.
The announcement means the recall is growing some 20-fold from last Friday to cover all patties ever made by the plant that are still believed to be in the marketplace.
Officials said it was the department’s largest recall.
But it is only a small fraction of the 8 billion pounds of ground beef of all types produced in the country each year. And the Columbus plant accounts for less than 7 percent of Hudson Food’s sales, the company said.
Company chairman James T. Hudson said the company ordered the recall “out of an abundance of caution and to restore the public confidence.”
Glickman said fewer than 20 people are known to have gotten sick from the tainted meat.
“We continue to monitor the situation very closely, but all the evidence at this point indicates that we have contained the outbreak,” he said.
Recalls were announced last week, first with 20,000 pounds of meat, then another 20,000, and on Friday it became 1.2 million pounds.
The initial Hudson recall began after health officials in Colorado traced the illnesses of more than a dozen people to hamburger patties they ate in early June.
The Agriculture Department has evidence that the contamination occurred not in the plant but at one or more of the slaughterhouses that supply it, said Tom Billy, administrator of department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Officials are looking at the seven slaughterhouses that were known to have supplied the plant on June 5, he said.
They are “now satisfied no indication of contamination occurred in the plant itself,” Billy said.
Glickman said the main reason the recall is being expanded was that officials Thursday morning discovered problems in the plant’s procedures. Specifically, he said, federal investigators discovered the plant had a practice of using leftover raw meat from one day in the next day’s production.
That has made it difficult to know when the last of the tainted meat left the plant, officials said.
E. coli is a potentially deadly bacteria that often gets into food through contact with fecal matter. It causes severe diarrhea, cramps and dehydration and was blamed for three deaths and hundreds of illnesses in Washington state in 1993, mainly because of undercooked burgers.
Officials stressed people should thoroughly cook hamburger, using a meat thermometer to make sure it is at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which investigated the E. coli outbreak associated with the patties in Colorado, said Thursday that 15 people became ill between June 14 and July 14, five of whom were hospitalized.
Eleven said they had eaten frozen patties, and eight specifically remembered eating Hudson Foods patties, the CDC said.
The CDC said the Hudson patties may have been distributed to all 48 contiguous states.
The plant’s major customers include Safeway, Wal-Mart, Burger King, Sam’s Club and Boston Market, officials said.
All those but Safeway, which could not immediately be reached, said they were immediately ceasing sales of beef from Hudson Foods or had already done so.
Safeway, Wal-Mart, Burger King and Boston Market stores in the Spokane area don’t use Hudson products, managers said Thursday. There is no Sam’s Club in Spokane.
Consumers were advised to return all Hudson Foods brand frozen beef patties with Establishment No. 13569 printed inside the USDA inspection seal, and to check with restaurants to make sure they are not using the suspect meat.
People can call the USDA hotline for information at 1-800-535-4555, or Hudson’s hotline at 1-800-447-2670.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: MEAT PRECAUTIONS The Agriculture Department issued an advisory in June about safely cooking ground beef, especially when there is the possibility of E. coli contamination. It read in part: “Do not rely on the internal color of the meat for safety; instead, use a meat thermometer. When the internal temperature of the burger reaches 160 degrees, the meat is safe.” The department added that hamburgers that are pink on the inside have not always reached an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit, sufficient to kill the bacteria. The best thermometer for this purpose is the “instant read” type, which is inserted into the food and records the temperature in 15 seconds.
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