A Green Bay meatpacking company convinced federal inspectors to forgo specialized E. coli testing at its plant in December - even though the company's meat had been linked to an outbreak that sickened nearly two dozen people, according to documents obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
More than eight months later - with the USDA's specialized E. coli testing program still not in place because the company's appeal of the order is pending - meat from the company, American Foods Group, is being investigated in another E. coli outbreak.
The company announced Aug. 26 that it was recalling 530,000 pounds of ground beef in 17 states because the food may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. The meat had a sell-by date of Aug. 19, so the company did not expect that any of it was still in stores at the time of the recall.
The recall came after bacteria were found in a sample from the plant, produced on Aug. 2. No illnesses were reported from that batch of meat, but the announcement came in the wake of an Illinois outbreak of E. coli infections in July that may have involved meat produced at the same plant. More than 30 people were sickened in that outbreak.
Illinois health officials said there is no conclusive evidence that American Foods was the E. coli source, because American Foods beef was reground with other meat at the store level.
USDA records obtained by the Journal Sentinel also show the company has been written up by federal inspectors 171 times from 1998 through 2000 for a variety of problems, including nine instances where inspectors spotted fecal matter on meat and two occasions in which meat tested positive for salmonella bacteria. Records for 2001 were not available.
Fecal matter is a leading cause of E. coli infection in meat. Meat inspection experts say, however, that the number of USDA non-compliance reports is actually low for a plant of American Foods' size.
Carl Kuehne, company owner and chief executive officer, said during an interview last month that the company upped the number of its own E. coli tests to some 2,000 - which he said were all negative - since January in the wake of last winter's E. coli outbreak.
That's far above what the USDA's specialized testing program would have required, he said, adding that the company fought implementation of the program because it believes the meat in the 2000 outbreak might have been contaminated at the store level. Kuehne stressed that the company has toughened its own procedures to keep E. coli out of its meat, including implementation of a new steam pasteurization process.
But the USDA records showed that when the USDA wanted to implement an intensified E. coli testing program at the plant in December, American Foods' officials successfully resisted it, saying there had been no positive test of meat at the plant and it might have been contaminated at the store level. The E. coli outbreak Dec. 5 had sickened more than 20 people, mostly in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The meat was produced by American Foods.
Seattle attorney William Marler announced last week that American Foods had settled the claims of five people sickened in that outbreak. The amounts of the settlements are confidential. Kuehne said the settlements were made to "avoid the continuing expense of litigation."
Just 21 days after that outbreak, American Foods Operations Manager Dan Klaus wrote the USDA that the company would appeal a "non-compliance" record issued because of the positive E. coli sample.
"We do not believe that there is any basis for the issuance of the NR (non-compliance record) or for the initiation of specialized E. coli testing at this establishment," Klaus wrote. " . . . We obviously assume that such action will not be taken while this appeal is undergoing . . . review."
Under USDA policy, the non-compliance report would have made the specialized E. coli testing mandatory. Carol Blake, USDA spokeswoman, said the appeal is still pending and that, while additional tests were performed since by federal inspectors, they have not been done at the level that would have been required under specialized testing.
The specialized testing would have required 15 consecutive negative E. coli tests performed by USDA inspectors at the plant. While companies are encouraged to have their own E. coli testing programs, the USDA testing "can verify the efficacy of the company's controls," Blake said.
E. coli O157:H7 is a potentially deadly variant of E. coli bacteria that can cause bloody diarrhea and dehydration. In extreme cases it causes a condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can lead to kidney failure.
E. coli can be contracted through food but also in other ways, such as through contact with farm animals, which is believed to be the cause of last month's outbreak in Ozaukee County. American Foods has no connection to that outbreak.
The findings, year by year
The USDA non-compliance reports on American Foods also show:
In 1998, 73 non-compliance reports were filed, including five involving fecal matter. They also included rusty equipment, meat on the floor, a continuing problem with condensation in a cooler and an employee removing hide without washing or sanitizing hands and equipment.
In 1999, 39 non-compliance reports were filed, including three involving fecal matter.
In 2000, 59 non-compliance records were filed, including one involving fecal contamination.
Among the records filed in 2000 was one reporting that on Nov. 1, 10 to 20 pieces of unpackaged meat were seen on the plant floor. The beef recalled in the 2000 E. coli outbreak was produced at the plant on Nov. 2 and 3. No non-compliance reports were found on those days, although there were others during the month of November.
Kuehne said the number of reports is low for a company the size of American Foods, which produced one billion pounds of meat during the years in question. He said the USDA issued 137,000 non-compliance reports to American meatpackers in 2000, and it's not unusual for the larger companies to have more than 300 issued against them per year. Twelve federal inspectors are permanently stationed at the American Foods plant.
And Marler, the Seattle attorney who specializes in E. coli cases, also characterized the number of non-compliance reports issued to American Foods as not being unusual, saying it's not surprising for a large meatpacking company to have as many as 100 non-compliance reports per year.
"It is a difficult matter to ensure you will never get fecal matter on material," said Marler.
But he said the reports still concerned him. "From the inspectors' viewpoint, these are serious," he said. "The ones in which someone is visually seeing cow feces on meat, you know you have a problem."
Still, by comparison, Excel Corp.'s Fort Morgan, Colo., meatpacking facility had 26 reports of fecal matter contamination during just 10 months, a far greater number than American Foods, according to earlier published reports. The company sold meat that was later determined to have contaminated watermelon at a Milwaukee Sizzler restaurant with E. coli. Three-year-old Brianna Kriefall of South Milwaukee died after eating it.
Blake, of the USDA, said she could not compare the number of non-compliance records issued against American Foods with other companies.