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E. coli Illness Warnings, Recalls Came Weeks Late

Reports of central Ohio residents sickened by E. coli began to accumulate in mid-June, worrying public-health workers who began in earnest to look for a cause.

At the same time, Nebraska Beef executives were finding that samples of meat were positive for the sometimes-deadly bacteria.

But no meat was pulled from the food supply, and no warnings were issued until June 25. It was July 3 by the time the company recalled 5.3 million pounds of its meat.

In the meantime, the outbreak numbers grew here and in Michigan, as dozens were sickened and some people were sent to the hospital. At least one person developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a kidney disorder that is responsible for most deaths associated with E. coli O157:H7 infections.

The lag time between the first signs that bacteria have entered the food supply and measures to protect public health -- including recalls -- has many people concerned about gaps in the system that is supposed to ensure safe food on America's tables.

Last week brought two changes that might improve what we know and when we know it.

In Ohio, Agriculture Director Robert Boggs told T h e Dispatch that he will no longer wait until other agencies or companies are ready to announce that tainted products have been identified through lab tests run by his department.

In this outbreak, the state had test results confirming E. coli-contaminated meat on June 23. Two days passed before that information was publicly released and Kroger issued a recall.

The Agriculture Department now will notify other parties of test results, and if those parties haven't made the information public within three hours, or no later than 4 p.m., the department will issue a release. Exemptions might exist for food samples from federal agencies, Boggs said.

"I think the industry should have been more forthcoming more quickly in giving information to the public that product in their stores had been contaminated," Boggs said.

For the federal government's part, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer announced on Friday a plan to tell consumers which retail stores sold products recalled by meat and poultry companies. The news came five months after a group of U.S. senators, including Ohio's Sherrod Brown, requested the change.

"There may be a gap in time between the need for a recall and the recall itself, but there should be no gap in public information," Brown said in a release.

In this most-recent case, an untold number of people have no idea that they have or had Nebraska Beef products because the number originally attached to the meat in question, "EST. 19336," doesn't necessarily follow the product to meat coolers.

Kroger volunteered information that its products were tainted, but no other retailers have publicly linked themselves to the Nebraska Beef.

On June 25, Kroger recalled meat with sell-by dates as late as June 8.

Five days passed before Nebraska Beef, a Kroger supplier, recalled almost 532,000 pounds of meat it sent to companies in seven states.

Then came the big recall: Nebraska Beef said on July 3 that 5.3 million pounds of its meat could be tainted and shouldn't be eaten. To put that in perspective: In the four most recent weeks for which industry data are available, Americans bought almost 356 million pounds of beef.

With the announcement of the expanded recall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said that Nebraska Beef's production practices were insufficient to protect meat from contamination and products might have been produced in unsanitary conditions.

Amanda Eamich, a USDA spokeswoman, told the Associated Press that the company responded slowly to news its products might be tainted.

Nebraska Beef spokesman William Lamson has not returned calls from The Dispatch.

But on the industry Web site, Lamson said Nebraska Beef followed standard procedure when it got notices on June 9 and June 17 indicating the company was among a group of firms suspected to have supplied contaminated product.

"We didn't have any indication of the fact that there was a potential for a recall … until June 28," quoted Lamson as saying.

He said an independent company is now testing all of Nebraska Beef's meat.

Kroger executives declined to be interviewed.

"Kroger is proactive and exceeds industry and government standards for recalls and product withdrawals," spokesman Brendon Cull said in a written statement.

Dr. William Schaffner, professor and chairman of the department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University, said many experts think a new agency should oversee food safety, one that is not so friendly with the industry.

Schaffner is not sure he agrees with that but said that whoever oversees food safety should have more power and focus only on public protection.

"The (USDA) is predicated on the notion that what the USA produces on the farm and on the ranch is a good thing," he said.

Ohio Agriculture Director Boggs agrees that regulators should be able to force recalls rather than rely on companies to issue them voluntarily.

Also necessary is a better system of tracing meat and other foods that often go through many channels before reaching the public, Boggs and Schaffner said.

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