Friday, October 03, 2003 - WASHINGTON - A severely flawed food-safety system jeopardized consumers when it allowed contaminated meat to leave a Greeley slaughterhouse and then failed to track the tainted meat, a scathing federal audit said Thursday.
Independent federal investigators who looked into the circumstances surrounding the 2002 recall of meat from the then-ConAgra plant condemned how it was handled, pointing fingers at federal regulators and the company.
"Neither ConAgra nor (the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food-safety arm) effectively fulfilled their responsibilities," the report from the Office of the Inspector General says. "The recall was ineffective and inefficient."
Contaminated meat from the plant, which now operates as Swift & Co., has been tied to 46 illnesses and one death.
The 149-page report cites many of the problems that were already known about the recall, including issues revealed by The Denver Post, and uncovers new ones. Investigators found so many problems, food-safety experts said, that it's surprising more people weren't sickened.
Among the report's major findings:
The Colorado slaughterhouse found contaminated meat at least 63 times in the weeks before 18.6 million pounds of beef was recalled last year.
The USDA's Food Safety & Inspection Service did not look at tests - done by ConAgra - that showed meat contaminated with E. coli bacteria. Because of its policies, the USDA believed it did not have the authority to review those tests. The USDA can only act on tests it conducts, not those done by the plant. Prior to the recall, ConAgra was exempt from USDA tests and conducted its own checks for E. coli. Investigators found, however, that the plant did not review its policies for preventing contamination after E. coli-laced meat was found repeatedly from April 8 through July 29, 2002. Between May 30, when the contaminated beef was produced, and June 30, when the recall was announced, ConAgra found E. coli nearly three dozen times.
USDA officials did not respond sufficiently when their own inspectors were saying meat from the plant was contaminated.
Only 3 million of the 18 million pounds recalled ultimately was accounted for, largely because the systems for finding problem meat are seriously flawed.
The safety plans USDA makes meat processors have in place do not require them to plan for a recall. While ConAgra had its own plan, other processors in the food chain did not, which thwarted the USDA's ability to get meat out of the food stream.
The USDA issued a statement in response to the report.
"Protecting public health is our No. 1 goal and we are continually working to enhance our systems to ensure they are the strongest possible," said Garry L.McKee, administrator of the Food Safety & Inspection Service. "FSIS acted swiftly in the interest of protecting public health when microbiological testing determined that meat produced by ConAgra Beef Company was contaminated with E. coli O157:H7."
The statement cites a number of actions the FSIS has taken since the recall. The department changed several policies in response to flaws revealed by the crisis.
"The majority of the findings contained in the (inspector general's) audit of the ConAgra recall have already been addressed by the agency," McKee's statement says.
However, in a response given to investigators, USDA said it was making additional changes. Among them, by the end of the year, the agency will issue guidelines requiring workers to track all meat that has tested positive for contaminates. The USDA said it lacks the authority to follow some of the recommendations, including requiring processors to have plans for dealing with recalls and to impose monetary fines for noncompliance with regulations.
One lawmaker said the USDA needs to do better.
"While some of the flaws in USDA policy identified by the OIG have been corrected, many persist to the present day," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. "After closely reviewing this important report, Congress should act to protect the safety of our food supply."
A Swift spokesman defended to company's actions before and after the recall.
"With one-year's perspective, we have confirmed that the steps we took during the recall were appropriate at every point in the process," said Swift spokesman Jim Herlihy. "Our company responded promptly to the USDA to ensure the swift recall of affected product, as well as to implement changes to our production processes to ensure the highest level of product safety and quality."
Swift said it helped the USDA figure out the recall needed to expand from a relatively paltry 354,000 pounds to more than 18 million.
"It was our company's proactive and voluntary testing protocol for E. coli, which we voluntarily share with the USDA, that enabled the USDA to recommend the expanded recall," Herlihy said.
Herlihy said he couldn't discuss specifics in the report because he had not read the whole document.
ConAgra has paid more than $10 million to settle out-of-court claims from victims and their families, according to attorney William Marler, who represented several of them.
A consumer advocate said the report verifies that more should have been done.
"With swifter action on the available evidence, the ConAgra outbreak in the summer of 2002 was a tragedy that could have been prevented," said Caroline Smith-DeWaal, food-safety director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Both the company and USDA missed clear warning signs that could have averted the outbreak. Consumers shouldn't have to get sick before the government takes action to address problems in meat and poultry plants."