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USDA took 18 days to recall bad meat

By Stephen J. Hedges

Chicago Tribune

Washington Bureau

October 4, 2007

The U.S. Department of Agriculture waited 18 days after learning that millions of pounds of ground beef made by Topps Meat Co. could be contaminated with E coli bacteria before it concluded that a recall was necessary, an e-mail from an agency inspection official shows.

The Topps hamburger recall, which is now the third largest hamburger recall in USDA history, was first announced Sept. 25. The Elizabeth, N.J., company initially recalled 331,000 pounds of hamburger, but last Saturday expanded the recall to include 21.7 million pounds of frozen hamburger.

The timing of the Topps recall, and its rapid expansion, are bound to raise more questions about the nation's food safety system. So far, 28 people in eight states—most in the Northeast—have fallen ill from eating the hamburger, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

Yet at the USDA, tests confirmed the presence of the E coli bacteria strain O157:H7 in the Topps hamburgers on Sept. 7, according to an e-mail from Kis Robertson, an employee of the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS).

Robertson, who declined comment, sent the e-mail to Scott Schlesinger, an attorney for Samantha Safranek, a Florida teenager who fell ill in August after eating a Topps hamburger.

Robertson's e-mail states: "The patties taken from the Safraneks were confirmed positive for E coli O157:H7 by FSIS on 9/07/07. The leftover product samples are still at Eastern Laboratory in Athens, GA. The decision to release these has to come from Agency leadership and I don't know what has been decided."

Safranek and her parents, Anna and David, sued Wal-Mart Stores Inc., where they bought the three-pound box of frozen Topps hamburger patties. In Newark, a lawyer representing four people who said they ate the Topps meat filed a class action lawsuit on Wednesday seeking unspecified monetary compensation for anyone who bought or was sickened by the Topps hamburgers and sold by Wal-Mart., Pathmark Stores Inc., ShopRite and Rastelli Fine Foods.

The USDA also announced its recall only as New York state published its own Sept. 25 consumer alert regarding possible E coli contamination in Topps hamburger. Claudia Hutton, a spokeswoman for the New York Department of Health, said that state investigators confirmed the E coli in Topps beef on Sept. 24 during tests in its Wadsworth Center Laboratories.

New York state actually issued its Sept. 25 consumer alert before the Topps recall was announced by the company and USDA, according to Jessica Chittenden, a New York Department of Agriculture and Markets spokewoman. Chittenden said once state tests confirm a single case of food contamination, her department is required to immediately notify the public. It has now found eight instances of contamination in New York.

"We do not have the authority to recall product," Chittenden said, "but we do have the authority to quarantine, seize and embargo a product."

Of those who have fallen ill, the CDC reports that "the first reported illness began on July 5, 2007, and the last began on September 11, 2007. Among fifteen ill persons for whom hospitalization status is known, ten (67%) patients were hospitalized."

The states affected by the E coli outbreak, according to the CDC, are Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Despite CDC evidence of an E coli outbreak as early as July, USDA officials said they could not definitively link the illnesses to any one food early on.

The Florida case, however, appeared to do that on Sept. 7.

Yet one top USDA official said that the agency needed more evidence before considering a recall.

"We gather information from various sources, including our public health partners in the states," said David Goldman, assistant administrator of the Office of Public Health at USDA's inspection service. "Once we have enough information that we have a basis for taking action, then we convene a group of people here in the agency to consider taking that action—in this case, take it to the company and request a recall.

"There are many steps along the way to get to that point."

Goldman said that one of those steps is an important test to confirm that the strain of E coli found in a piece of meat is the same strain that caused a human illness. The test is known as the Pulsed Field Gel Electrophoresis (PFGE), and it wasn't initially performed in the Topps meat investigation, he said.

But a Sept. 14 Broward County, Fla., Health Department report states that such a test was performed. The report notes: "Based on the information regarding the indistinguishable PFGE pattern of the clinical and food isolates as well as the information reported in the case investigation, it appears that the Topp's Frozen Ground Beef Patties is the mostly likely source of illness."

The report's text also notes that the Broward report was sent to the USDA.

Amanda Eamich, a USDA spokeswoman, said that the USDA's recall committee first met on Sept. 25 to consider the Topps case, 18 days after E coli was confirmed in a Topps hamburger, according to Robertson's e-mail, which was provided to the Tribune.

The committee, comprised of department officials, concluded then that it should request a Class I recall of the Topps meat, she said.

Class I is the USDA's most serious recall class. It means that there is "a reasonable probability that eating the food will cause health problems or death."

Topps first learned from a consumer of an illness that was possibly caused by its meat on Aug. 30, according to Michele Williams, a company spokeswoman. She said the company provided the USDA with meat samples from the same production date and also meat obtained from the customer's freezer.

"We've been cooperating fully with the USDA to make sure we've been doing everything to ensure the safety of our customers," Williams said.

The USDA and Food and Drug Administration have been harshly criticized recently in Congress and by food safety groups for their slow responses to food-borne illnesses and recalls.

Neither agency has the legal authority to force food manufacturers to conduct recalls, but they can recommend a recall. USDA has the authority to remove items from store shelves if a company refuses to conduct a recall that the agency deems necessary.

Several members of Congress have offered legislation that would give the USDA and FDA the legal authority to order recalls. One of them, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), introduced a bill on Monday to bolster USDA's recall ability, saying that, "When something does go wrong, USDA needs to be able to act and act quickly. Neither consumers nor producers are helped by foot-dragging."

The USDA notes in its recall announcements that Topps acted voluntarily. The initial Sept. 25 recall was expanded, however, after USDA inspectors visited the Topps production facility in New Jersey and discovered safety violations.

USDA's Eamich said the agency won't disclose those violations, but it suspended Topps raw ground beef operations because of them.

The safety violations were discovered even though the USDA has previously maintained a meat safety inspector within the Topps plant.

The Florida case began to unfold Aug. 17, when Samantha Safranek made a hamburger for herself and two friends on the family's George Foreman grill, according to the report from the Broward County Department of Public Health.

"According to the patient's mother, the patty consumed by the patient was still pink in the middle upon consumption," the Broward report states. Thoroughly cooking meats kills E coli bacteria.

While Samantha's friends did not fall ill, she did. Within three days, she was experiencing stomach cramps. When she suffered from bloody diarrhea and urine, she was hospitalized.

Doctors quickly confirmed that Samantha was suffering from E coli, said Schlesigner, her attorney. She contracted a form of kidney failure known as Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome. Samantha Safranek eventually went through six kidney dialysis sessions before recovering, Schlesinger said.

E coli poisoning, according to the USDA, is especially hard on children and the elderly and can cause severe kidney damage.

The Sept. 14 Broward County report notes that samples of the meat were taken from the girl's home in Pembroke Pines, near Ft. Lauderdale, for testing by the USDA. They proved positive, for E coli, it states.

The USDA notices explaining the Topps recall, however, do not mention the Florida case. Instead, they state that the recall occurred because of three cases in New York.

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