WASHINGTON -- A Nebraska meat-processing plant is closing temporarily and expanding its recall of ground beef to 25 million pounds after federal investigators found evidence that far more meat might be contaminated by a hazardous bacteria than originally suspected.
It is the largest such recall in U.S. history, said Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. Last week, the Hudson plant in the eastern Nebraska town of Columbus recalled 1.2 million pounds of meat.
The beef has been distributed across the country in 4-ounce frozen patties to a variety of chains, including Burger King, Boston Market, Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and Safeway supermarkets, Glickman said. Cooking meat thoroughly kills the bacteria.
While yesterday's actions were voluntary, they were undertaken by the plant's owner, Hudson Foods of Rogers, Ark., under an implicit threat from the Department of Agriculture that unless processing and administrative problems at the plant were corrected, the department would force the plant to close by withdrawing inspectors who ensure food safety.
Glickman said at a news conference yesterday that federal investigators found this week that hamburger patties left over from production on June 5 showing evidence of the potentially deadly E. coli bacteria were added to production the next day.
As a result, the company could not guarantee that meat produced subsequently would be free of a bacteria that kills some of the 9,000 Americans who die from eating tainted foods each year.
"I believe that the action we are taking today, while tough, is the only option based on the new information our investigators have uncovered," Glickman said. "This is a big step, but the evidence indicates we have contained the outbreak."
Because a recall is voluntary, Glickman said he would ask Congress in the fall to give the Agriculture Department the authority to impose a recall and civil penalties against plants that not comply with federal regulations.
The Agriculture Department began investigating problems at the Hudson plant after company officials expanded their recall of ground beef to 1.2 million pounds Aug. 15 from an initial recall of 20,000 pounds three days earlier. The company made the first recall after public health officials in Colorado identified the E. coli bacteria in Hudson beef patties in late July and on Aug. 12.
But Thomas Billy, administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service, an arm of the Agriculture Department, said that as federal investigators looked deeper into plant operations, they found that the plant had weak quality-control standards, inadequate record-keeping and a routine practice of returning unused raw material into the next day's production.
It was on the basis of those conditions, Billy said, that the company agreed to recall the additional meat.
Department officials conceded they did not know how much of the 25 million pounds remains uneaten. Whatever is returned, they said, would be destroyed by a Hudson facility in Van Buren, Ark.
The company chairman, James Hudson, said in a statement that the decisions to expand the recall and close the plant until problems were corrected were made "out of an abundance of caution to restore the public confidence."
He said the company believes that the source of any contamination was from slaughterhouses that supplied the raw, deboned meat and not the plant, where the meat is processed into frozen patties -- an assessment with which Agriculture Department officials concurred.
Agriculture Department officials said they have identified seven such suppliers who supplied raw meat to the plant. They declined to identify them until they are certain which had supplied the contaminated meat, but they said they have found no indication of illnesses caused by meat processed by other customers of the slaughterhouses.
The Hudson plant contamination is the most prominent case of the E. coli bacteria since four children died and hundreds of people became ill in 1993 after they ate undercooked hamburgers sold by Jack-in-the-Box restaurants in the Northwest.
That outbreak led to the creation of a vice-presidential commission, which proposed more stringent methods of monitoring hazardous bacteria in food-processing plants.
A system of protocols recommended by the commission became a major part of the Clinton administration's effort to improve food safety, a $43.2 million program included in the 1998 budget.
The new system of hazard controls is to go into effect in large processing plants -- those with 500 or more workers -- Jan. 26. Plants with 10 to 499 workers, including the Hudson facility, are not required to have the new controls in place until the following January, with the smallest processing plants, those with fewer than 10 workers, required to phase in changes by January 2000.
The Hudson plant is 4 years old and employs about 230 people.
Pub Date: 8/22/97