A conveyor belt that moved raw patties to packaging was marred by "gouges, cracks and tears," inspectors said. They found residue on surfaces that fresh meat came into contact with.
But the plant kept operating, until an outbreak of E. coli last summer and fall sickened at least 40 people in eight states and led to one of the nation's largest beef recalls.
Documents obtained by The Associated Press and interviews show that the now-defunct company cut back on testing for the dangerous pathogen and disregarded sanitary issues, but also that federal food inspectors overlooked crucial evidence that Topps used risky processing procedures and operated under a flawed food safety plan.
"Clearly, something was missed at Topps" when the company became "complacent," Kenneth Petersen, head of the national Office of Field Operations for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, conceded in an interview.
The documents present the most detailed picture yet of what was happening at Topps, which sold its products to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and supermarkets and institutions such as schools, hospitals, restaurants and hotels around the country under the Topps brand as well as several private labels.
Topps had been in business for over six decades and claimed to be the leading U.S. maker of frozen hamburgers before it closed its plant in northern New Jersey and went out of business last year within two weeks of initiating the recalls. The Centers for Disease Control said at least 40 people in eight states were sickened after eating Topps beef.
The recall ultimately comprised nearly 22 million pounds of beef , a year's worth of production.
Former Topps executives declined or did not respond to requests for comment on the U.S. Department of Agriculture documents, which were obtained by The Associated Press through Freedom of Information requests.
According to the USDA reports, regulators examining the plant in Elizabeth, N.J., last fall found the company failed to test some raw meat for the potentially fatal bacteria, botched daily cleansings and ignored parts of its own operating framework.
Topps did not require that every batch of meat received from slaughterhouses be certified to be free of E. coli, inspection documents show.
Suppliers don't always test certain cuts, such as steaks and roasts, where any bacteria would usually be on the exterior and could be readily killed by cooking. But when Topps ground such "intact" cuts, any bacteria present was mixed into patties, where interior temperatures of 160 degrees during cooking would be needed to kill it.
"They were doing that trimming and putting it into their ground mixture, but not doing any testing on it themselves to determine if it had E. coli," said Petersen. "That was another avenue for potential contamination."
In a separate interview, Petersen said Topps had decreased end-of-line testing for E. coli from monthly to three times a year. "Somewhere, I don't know if lazy is the right word, but they got complacent," he said.
Topps recalled 332,000 pounds of hamburger on Sept. 25 after authorities in several states reported people becoming ill. The USDA inspection service suspended production the next day, citing deficiencies in sanitation and an inadequate plan that is supposed to outline where contamination might occur and what will be done to prevent it. The plant was barred from reopening without revising its procedures.
Inspectors also questioned Topps' practice of "re-work," in which meat ground on one day could be added to meat during another production cycle. No law prohibits mixing different lots of beef, but food safety experts generally agree it expands the risk of contamination.
"That is a very bad process, and hardly anyone in the industry does that," Petersen said. "If you want to manage E. coli in your plant, it's just not a good idea to go back in time." He said his agency is compiling figures on how many processors nationwide use re-work.
Federal inspectors also criticized sanitary measures at the plant, citing "product residues observed on product contact surfaces" and "recurring deficiencies of unsanitary equipment," including "gouges, cracks and tears" on a conveyor belt.
The deadly bacteria strain, E. coli O157:H7, does not originate in grinding plants. It is harbored mainly in the intestines of cattle, but can get into meat through improper butchering and processing. Grinding operations such as Topps are the last chance to halt the spread of E. coli before the meat is available to the public.
Confronted with those findings, Topps expanded the recall on Sept. 29 to 21.7 million pounds, the second-largest U.S. beef recall at the time , although much of the meat had already been eaten.
Amid an idled production line and the financial fallout from the recall, Topps closed its 67-year-old business on Oct. 5, putting 87 employees out of work.
In late October, the USDA inspection service identified a now-defunct Canadian slaughterhouse, Rancher's Beef Ltd. of Balzac, Alberta, as a likely source of the multistate E. coli outbreak linked to Topps.
Topps filed on Nov. 21 to liquidate in bankruptcy court, citing thousands of creditors and liabilities that far outstripped its assets.
At least three families have sued Topps, claiming relatives became ill from its hamburgers. With the company out of business, they are seeking shares of insurance payouts that could total $22 million.
"The problem with Topps is it seems they had really low, low frequency of testing their finished hamburger product," which saved money, said William D. Marler of Seattle, a lawyer for two of the families. "Their testing protocol really was designed never to find E. coli; never to slow the process down."
Marler examined the inspection documentation at the request of the AP and said many deficiencies should have been caught.
"This report clearly shows that their safety procedures and testing procedures were definitely below par and led to this outbreak and ultimately to their bankruptcy," he said. "My point is, these things are so obvious, where was the inspector in July and August 2007?"
While acknowledging that inspections could have been better, the USDA's Petersen said that after the Topps recalls, "we put in place some changes to make sure that doesn't happen again."
The agency determined that its inspectors were properly trained, but has augmented training and data analysis as a result of the Topps case, Petersen said. For example, if a meat plant's safety plan includes accepting only meat that has been tested, the inspectors have now been told to look for certificates for each lot that enters the plant, he said.
Petersen said he could not disclose if any discipline was taken against government inspectors who monitored Topps. Typically, one inspector would be at the plant for 60 to 90 minutes during each eight-hour production cycle, he said.
The scope of the recall also prompted the USDA , which had been criticized for dragging its feet , to move faster in encouraging recalls. The agency cannot issue recalls, although several lawmakers are proposing legislation in Congress that would give it that authority.
Marler said Petersen and others at the inspection service were working hard, but are hampered by an outdated meat safety system.
"It really shows how the inspection is relatively antiquated, because what these inspectors are looking for is a bacteria you can't see, taste or smell," Marler said.
The nation needs to do a better job of butchering animals and testing for E. coli at slaughterhouses, agreed Felicia Nestor, senior policy analyst at Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit consumer group in Washington.
Meat producers, meanwhile, maintain that the public interest is best served by a broad array of measures, and that last year's rise in E. coli incidents was of great concern following a steady decline since 2001.
Topps is now winding down its bankruptcy. Its assets were sold Jan. 8 for more than $1.25 million, with all but $107,500 going to RBS Citizens Bank of Philadelphia, which had a secured claim because it had loaned Topps $14.5 million.
More than 5,000 other creditors, which include supermarkets and individuals who bought burgers, have unsecured claims of about $1 million. They could get a share of the $107,500, and eventually see more money through litigation by the court-appointed trustee for Topps.
Topps' president, David Cohen, declined to speak about the company.
Its executive vice president, Anthony L. D'Urso, declined to comment when presented with the USDA inspection documents at his New Jersey home. He is a member of the family that ran Topps for about 60 years until Buffalo, N.Y.-based private equity firm Strategic Investments & Holdings bought a controlling interest in 2003.
Gary M. Brost, the president of Strategic Investments, said in an e-mail: "Counsel has advised us not to comment or discuss the Topps Meat Co. LLC meat recall since it has resulted in litigation."
Meanwhile, the former Topps plant reopened in March as Onegreat Burger Co. after an affiliate of Hawthorne-based Premio Foods, a sausage maker, acquired the remainder of the Topps lease and its flash-freezing equipment for $250,000 during the bankruptcy proceedings.
"We've made it an entirely new state-of the art operation, focused on food safety and quality products," Premio and Onegreat Burger President Marc Cinque said.
While D'Urso is a sales consultant, and a company associated with the D'Urso family is the landlord, Cinque said the plant has been refurbished with new manufacturing equipment and the 30 employees include no members of Topps management or ownership.