Whole Foods Market pulled fresh ground beef from all of its stores Friday, becoming the latest retailer affected by an E. coli outbreak traced to Nebraska Beef, one of the nation's largest meatpackers. It's the second outbreak linked to the processor in as many months.
The meat Whole Foods recalled came from Coleman Natural Foods, which unbeknownst to Whole Foods had processed it at Nebraska Beef, an Omaha meatpacker with a history of food-safety and other violations. Nebraska Beef last month recalled more than 5 million pounds of beef produced in May and June after its meat was blamed for another E. coli outbreak in seven states. On Friday it recalled an additional 1.2 million pounds of beef produced on June 17, June 24 and July 8, which included products eventually sold to Whole Foods. The recall is not related to the recent spate of E. coli illnesses among Boy Scouts at a gathering in Goshen, Va.
Whole Foods officials are investigating why they were not aware that Coleman was using Nebraska Beef as a processor, spokeswoman Libba Letton said.
The chain's managers took action after Massachusetts health officials informed them Aug. 1 that seven people who had gotten sick from E. coli O157:H7 had all bought ground beef from Whole Foods. The same strain has sickened 31 people in 12 states, the District and Canada.
So far, tests have not found contaminated Whole Foods beef, Letton said.
That was small comfort yesterday to some shoppers at the Whole Foods on P Street NW.
"I shop here because the standards are higher, so yes, this really concerns me," said Harry Harrison, 43, a District resident who shops almost exclusively at Whole Foods and buys beef at the store about once a week.
This latest outbreak was first identified in late July among customers of Dorothy Lane Market, a small Ohio grocery chain. Dorothy Lane also bought meat from Coleman Natural Foods, which bought primal cuts -- meat intended for steaks and roasts -- from Nebraska Beef. The E. coli strain found in the Massachusetts Whole Foods customers matches that Ohio strain.
Nebraska Beef, which continues to operate, had already been under close scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Agriculture since late June.
William M. Lamson Jr., a Nebraska Beef spokesman, said the company and the USDA had increased testing of its meat since then. It has found no E. coli O157:H7 in products made since July 8.
He said that since June, Nebraska Beef has hired food safety consultants and undertaken an in-depth review of its processes. USDA is doing the same.
"We will continue to investigate to see what is happening at the plant to see what they have to do to get a handle on their food-safety issues," said agency spokeswoman Laura Reiser.
Nebraska Beef has a contentious history with the USDA. Over the past six years, federal meat inspectors have repeatedly written it up for sanitation violations, and the company has fought back in court.
From September 2002 to February 2003, USDA shut down the plant three times for problems such as feces on carcasses, water dripping off pipes onto meat, paint peeling onto equipment and plugged-up meat wash sinks, according to agency records.
After the third suspension, Nebraska Beef took USDA to court, arguing that another shutdown would put the company out of business. A judge agreed and temporarily blocked the department. The USDA and the company then settled out of court and inspections resumed. However, when federal meat inspectors found more violations, Nebraska Beef sued the department and the inspectors individually, accusing them of bias. The suit was later dismissed.
In 2004 and early 2005, Nebraska Beef ran afoul of new regulations aimed at keeping animal parts that may be infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, out of the meat supply. Meat processors are required to remove certain high-risk parts, such as brains and spinal cords. Between July 2004 and February 2005, federal meat inspectors wrote up Nebraska Beef at least five times for not removing spinal cords and heads, according to USDA records obtained by Food and Water Watch, a Washington advocacy group. The company corrected the problems.
In August 2006, federal meat inspectors threatened to suspend operations at the packing house for not following requirements for controlling E. coli. The company corrected the problem a week later, USDA records show.
That year, Minnesota health officials blamed Nebraska Beef for sickening 17 people who ate meatballs at a church potluck in rural Minnesota. Several victims filed lawsuits against Nebraska Beef, including the family of a woman who died. The company last fall sued the church, arguing that the volunteer cooks did not cook the meatballs properly.
Lamson said management has since asked that the suit be dropped.
Given the history of violations, some consumer advocates question why the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service has not come down harder on the company.
"It seems that FSIS is walking on eggshells when dealing with Nebraska Beef," said Food and Water Watch lobbyist Tony Corbo. "Instead, the agency keeps on coming up with Band-Aid approaches . . . while consumers keep on getting sick from eating products put into commerce by this company."
"Companies are provided the opportunity to take corrective action," USDA's Reiser said.
Lamson said Nebraska Beef's relationship with regulators has changed.
"We may have disagreed with USDA in the past, but we believe we have a very good relationship going forward . . . as exemplified by our cooperation and our voluntary recall," he said.
The force behind Nebraska Beef is Nebraska businessman William Hughes. Hughes was a top executive at the now-defunct BeefAmerica. In 1997, the USDA yanked its inspectors from BeefAmerica's Norfolk, Neb., plant because of repeated sanitation violations, including contamination of meat with fecal matter. The company had to recall more than 600,000 pounds of beef after the USDA traced E. coli O157:H7-tainted meat from a Virginia retailer to the Omaha packer. It filed for bankruptcy the following year.
By then, Hughes was already part of a group of Nebraska Beef investors. The state gave the company additional financial support in the form of $7.5 million in tax credits under its Quality Jobs Act. Then-Gov. Ben Nelson (D), now a U.S. senator, sat on the three-member jobs board that approved the tax credits. Nelson's former law firm, Lamson, Dugan and Murray, represents Nebraska Beef.
While state leaders welcomed Nebraska Beef and the jobs that came with it, residents who lived near the plant did not, and for more than a decade, they battled the company over manure strewn in the street and workers walking off the kill floor and into the local grocery store covered in cow splatter, said South Omaha resident Janet Bonet.
Labor unions have also criticized Nebraska Beef over its labor practices. Since 1998, the company has had 47 workplace safety violations and paid more than $100,000 in fines, Occupational Safety and Health Administration records show. Lamson said most were not serious.
In 2002, a National Labor Relations Board official voided a 2001 vote against unionizing Nebraska Beef employees. The NLRB official found that management interrogated workers about their union sympathies and threatened to fire, terminate benefits for or reassign employees who voted to unionize.
Whole Foods Market said customers who bought ground beef between June 2 and Aug. 6 should throw it out. They can return the packaging or receipt to the store for a refund.