Safeway officials on Thursday suspended the purchase of ground beef processed at the ConAgra plant in Greeley in the wake of a recall and a dozen cases of E. coli reported in recent weeks.
The move came as federal investigators were working to identify the source of the E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria that has sickened at least 12 people - and perhaps more - in nine counties. Although ConAgra voluntarily recalled 345,200 pounds of beef on June 30 after a positive E. coli test, it's likely to be next week before it is determined whether any of those who got sick in Colorado were infected by meat from the Greeley plant.
"We need to see what happened and go from there," said Jeff Stroh, spokesman for Safeway's Denver division, after announcing the grocer's suspension of purchasing ground beef from ConAgra.
ConAgra is one of several suppliers that Safeway uses, Stroh said.
In addition, Safeway recalled all ground beef it sold on white or yellow foam trays and included "sell by" dates from June 7 through June 28. That included ground sirloin and ground beef that was 73, 80, 90 and 93 percent lean.
The move does not apply to any ground beef currently available in Safeway stores. It was taken, Stroh said, to prevent the possibility that some of the recalled ConAgra ground beef may have contaminated other meat that was processed at the same time.
Despite the questions, ConAgra officials defended the safety of ground beef. "Ground beef is a safe product," said Jim Herlihy, vice president of communication and consumer affairs.
And federal inspectors defended the system of monitoring meat sold in the United States.
"We're continuously striving to improve the system to ensure that the public is protected," said Steven Cohen of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service. "That's the reason we have recalls when we discover problems, and that's the reason we're so adamant about trying to remind the public about safe food handling and reminding the public to use a food thermometer to ensure that foods are cooked to safe temperatures."
However, attorney Bruce Clark, who specializes in food-related lawsuits, said the larger meatpackers are too cozy with their regulators, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, resulting in recall notices that don't get out fast enough.
The agency makes it tough on local health officials to identify the source of contamination because it doesn't identify the source on its Web site, he said.
The biggest loophole, Clark said, is that the USDA doesn't require meatpackers to list their secondary markets of distribution. So, if a huge lot of possibly contaminated meat is bound mostly to a warehouse in Greeley or Boise, Idaho, ConAgra doesn't have to report that it was then shipped to warehouses or stores in other states.
"The existing notification system is pathetically wrong," Clark said. "They consider where they ship as confidential proprietary information.
"But it's pointless to tell Joe Consumer that a bunch of ground beef was recalled in the state of Colorado without telling him that the hamburger he bought at the grocery a quarter-mile away may be contaminated."
ConAgra Beef Co. has about 22 percent of the market, putting it about even with Cargill and just behind IBP, which leads the industry with 27 percent of the market, according to analyst David C. Nelson of Credit Suisse First Boston.
Nelson said the recall and the E. coli outbreak shouldn't do much harm to ConAgra.
The meat that was part of the ConAgra recall was all processed on May 31.
Cohen said a portion of that meat was frozen and sent to an as-yet-undisclosed plant and re-ground. There, a federal inspector took a sample of the meat for testing.
On June 29, that test showed the presence of E. coli 0157:H7.
The next day, ConAgra issued the recall.