Federal meat inspectors suspected that ConAgra ground beef was contaminated with potentially deadly E. coli two weeks before they asked the company to issue a giant recall. But U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors never told ConAgra - or the dozens of supermarkets across the country that were selling the tainted meat - that ground beef it produced might have E. coli and could make consumers sick, The Denver Post has learned through federal records and interviews.
Instead, inspectors who found the first of the tainted meat at a Denver processor in mid-June spent the rest of that month testing for more E. coli before finally asking ConAgra Beef Co. in Greeley on June 30 to issue the recall.
By then, the meat ConAgra sold to processor Galligan's Wholesale Meat Co. - none of it distributed publicly - had failed four E. coli tests, stores in at least 10 states were selling thousands of pounds of the meat they bought through different suppliers, and reports of illnesses to Colorado health officials were starting to stack up.
Local USDA officials refused to comment Friday about why the agency did not warn ConAgra that ground beef it produced May 31 was suspect, something company officials said they would like to have known.
On Friday, state health officials confirmed that six more people were sickened after eating E. coli-tainted ground beef, including a boy from South Dakota who was airlifted to Children's Hospital in Denver for treatment.
That brings to 18 the number of victims afflicted with E. coli 0157:H7, the most in Colorado since 1997 when 17 illnesses led to the recall of 25 million pounds of tainted ground beef from a Nebraska producer, then the largest recall in U.S. history.
Health officials confirmed that a dozen of the victims were sickened by the recalled meat and are using DNA evidence from the meat and the
victims to link the others. The department is also testing eight new victims to see if their illnesses are related to E. coli.
"This is truly outrageous. The USDA at a minimum should give companies notice that their product is suspected of contamination," said Caroline
Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.
"This is not just a disservice to the public, but it's gambling with the public health to ensure the USDA is not harming a company."
The company recalled 354,000 pounds of ground beef, much of it distributed through Safeway stores in Colorado and five other Western states.
A ConAgra spokesman expressed surprise Friday that its meat was suspected for contamination long before the USDA asked the company to recall its product. The company likely would have considered asking customers such as Safeway to withhold the meat from shelves until the E. coli finding was confirmed, spokesman Jim Herlihy said.
"We would have liked to get to the bottom of it as soon as possible before people continued to consume the product," he said.
USDA regional director Ronald Jones, who runs the agency's Boulder office and is responsible for inspection operations in several Western states including Colorado, refused to comment Friday, hanging up on a reporter after referring questions to USDA headquarters in Washington.
A USDA spokesman in Washington could not be reached for comment late Friday.
E. coli 0157:H7 is a virulent form of the bacteria that comes from the feces of slaughtered cattle. This year there have been 11 recalls of E. coli-tainted ground beef nationwide, according to the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service website. Another 14 cases, including the one involving the ConAgra meat at Galligan's, included positive tests for the pathogen, but the companies did not distribute the product during testing. No recall was issued.
The USDA first suspected on May 14 that ConAgra meat might be tainted. That's when an inspector found E. coli in a batch of ground beef at Galligan's.
USDA inspectors weren't sure where the E. coli came from because Galligan's mixed ground beef it purchased from two different suppliers, a common practice among meat processors, then sold it to customers that include Denver's City Jail.
One of the suppliers was ConAgra.
Galligan's officials said Friday that they never allow meat to be distributed while the USDA is testing, partly to ensure contaminated meat doesn't reach the public.
To isolate the source of the E. coli, Galligan's officials decided to keep separate the ground beef purchased from the two suppliers.
USDA tests on June 11 and 13 found no E. coli, company owner Richard Galligan said. That meat was from a supplier different than ConAgra.
USDA records show ground beef tests on June 12 and 14, however, were positive for the pathogen. The meat tested on those days came from ConAgra in Greeley, according to several federal and private sources familiar with the recall.
"We're very satisfied that our manufacturing practices kept (contaminated) product we received from going into commerce," Galligan said. "It's the responsible thing to do, both as a businessman and as a citizen. I don't want to see people get sick, so I won't allow any meat to go until the USDA tests show everything's OK."
Despite finding the E. coli on two separate occasions, the USDA didn't tell ConAgra that its meat was being scrutinized. That's because the agency tested the ground beef Galligan's had made from ConAgra meat. The USDA didn't test sealed ConAgra packages that Galligan's had bought.
That happened on June 24, when a pair of unopened 10-pound chubs Galligan had purchased that month from ConAgra were sent to a USDA lab.
Both chubs tested positive for E. coli.
That started the recall - on June 30, a month after the tainted meat had been produced.
"I'm not aware of any regulation that doesn't allow the USDA to tell a suspected supplier that there might be a problem with their product," said Seattle-based attorney William Marler, a food-safety specialist who represents four families in the Colorado outbreak.
"Good business practices would have been to allow ConAgra to at least tell its outlets that 354,000 pounds should be held for a couple days until tests showed it was OK. Why the USDA wouldn't do that is beyond me."
Galligan said he's not sure whether the USDA should prohibit companies from distributing meat that's being tested, but he'll continue the voluntary practice to ensure his customers are protected.
"A guy has to be a fool to put a product out there that's being tested," he said. "We're a small company, and it's in our best interest to be sure our customers get good, wholesome meat."
USDA regulations allow companies to "ship or hold" their product during E. coli testing.
Much of the ground beef ended up in Safeway stores, although company officials haven't said exactly how much of it they sold.
Safeway announced July 2 that it had sold some of the meat, but the growing number of reported illnesses made company officials extend the recall to include ground beef it sold during a two-week period in June, Safeway spokesman Jeff Stroh said.
The company announced Thursday that it had suspended its ground beef purchases from Con-Agra until the USDA recall investigation is completed.
Additional samples of ConAgra meat are being evaluated by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Some have been genetically matched to illnesses in victims, said Dr. Jim Beebe, a state microbiologist.
Two-year-old Olivia Rodriguez of Aurora is the only victim who remains hospitalized. She is in good condition at Children's Hospital.
Staff writer Allison Sherry contributed to this report.