Investigation closes at Carneco

COLUMBUS - The federal investigation into Carneco Foods of Columbus has been closed.

Early in August, 497,000 pounds of ground beef were voluntarily recalled by the local plant after the Minnesota Department of Health reported five cases of E. coli 0517:H7 infection that were traced back to meat processed in Columbus and sold through Sam's Club locations.

Minnesota Department of Health officials did not have readily available a current total of the number of people who became ill after eating the ground beef products.

Carneco Divisional Vice President of Operations John Schaller of Oklahoma City said the list of possible suppliers of the contaminated meat has been shortened, but the point of origin is still being determined.

"The problem was not something created in Columbus," Schaller said. "It came in with our raw meat."

Before the recall effort, raw meat products entered the Carneco plant after the company tested a portion of each lot to screen out contaminated meat. Vendors were tracked in part based on the tests. Processed products were not tested for E. coli when they left the plant.

During the recent federal inspection period, US Department of Agriculture inspectors reviewed processes and procedures at the plant. Much of the study focused on testing methods Carneco requires its vendors to perform.

Based on the USDA findings, Carneco officials then recommended some changes to be implemented at the Columbus facility. Those recommendations were approved by government officials, and Carneco is currently implementing them under the supervision of USDA inspectors.

Schaller, as well as the USDA, declined to comment on what those changes are.

Of the almost half a million pounds of recalled meat, about 35,000 pounds was returned. The contaminated product did not come back to Columbus, but was to be housed in an outside warehouse before being destroyed. Schaller had said in August that it was likely most of the product had already been consumed.

Production at the plant dropped somewhat after the recall was announced, but is now back up to normal for this time of year - two to three million pounds per week, according to Schaller.

He said he appreciates the support the city of Columbus has given to Carneco since the recall was announced.

Carneco officials remind consumers that thorough cooking kills harmful bacteria, including E. coli 0517:H7. Beef patties should only be consumed after being cooked to a safe temperature of 160 degrees. Consumers should also remember to wash their hands thoroughly after handling raw meat and to not use the same utensils, plates, cutting boards or containers for raw and cooked meat.

The E. coli bacteria produce a toxin that causes severe or bloody diarrhea and sometimes other serious complications. While most healthy people recover, children and the elderly are at greatest risk.