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Hamburger Recall Grows; Packing Plant Will Close

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Vastly expanding what was already the largest food recall in U.S. history, a Nebraska plant that packaged possibly tainted hamburger patties is ordering back an estimated 25 million pounds of the product and will close indefinitely, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said Thursday.

Hudson Foods Inc., owner of the Columbus, Neb., plant, agreed to vastly broaden the scope of the recall after federal inspectors uncovered production practices suggesting that more frozen beef might have been contaminated with E. coli bacteria than originally suspected.

Last week, after a link was made with 16 Colorado cases of E. coli food poisoning, Hudson Foods announced recalls over successive days, first of 20,000 pounds, then an additional 20,000 and, last Friday, a record 1.2 million pounds. Thursday’s vault to 25 million pounds--or 100 million burgers--makes this by far the largest food recall that government officials could remember. That amount falls just shy of a typical day’s U.S. production of ground beef.

Watchdog groups said the plant closing and continuing federal investigation of Hudson raise concerns about the government’s plant-inspection methods at a time when food safety is increasingly on consumer’s minds.

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The Hudson products--all bearing establishment No. 13569--were distributed to grocery stores, fast-food chains and warehouse outlets, including Safeway, Sam’s Clubs (owned by Wal-Mart), Burger King and Boston Market. USDA officials suggested that consumers check their freezers for any Hudson products and return them to the retailer for a refund.

It is not known how much of the beef is still in Southern California or might have been consumed here. But previous indications were that the region was only minimally affected.

Burger King announced it would immediately pull all Hudson products from its restaurants. About 25% of Burger King outlets carry Hudson beef products, and some of those restaurants may experience temporary shortages of burgers, the company said in a statement.

Boston Market ordered Hudson patties pulled from all of its 1,200 stores.

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“The patties will be out of our stores within the next 15 minutes,” said Jeff Beckman, Boston Market’s public-relations director, soon after the news conference. For a time, he said, meatloaf won’t be available at certain outlets.

Southern California locations, the company said, do not use Hudson ground beef.

Hudson, based in Rogers, Ark., said in a statement that it was suspending operations “out of an abundance of caution and to restore the public confidence.”

The plant will not reopen, Glickman said at a hastily arranged Washington news conference, until the company has adopted “far more stringent safety standards that we have specifically laid out for them based on what we have found in our investigation.”

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Among other discoveries by U.S. Department of Agriculture investigators was that the plant had on two successive days packaged beef left over from the previous day’s production, because of the breakdown of a packing machine. This proved problematic because the beef from the first of those three days--June 5--was later shown to contain Escherichia coli O157:H7, which can cause severe, bloody diarrhea and can be fatal. That problem was made worse by inadequate bookkeeping, which made it tough to track particular lots of meat, and by possibly unsatisfactory testing, said Thomas J. Billy, administrator of the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Although the USDA has no specific prohibition on such a practice, meat plants typically finish packaging the entire supply on a given day, Billy said.

The harsh action was called for, officials said, even though they have evidence that the contamination occurred not in the plant but at one or more of the slaughterhouses that supply it.

Technically, the Hudson action is described as a voluntary recall. But Glickman used the opportunity to urge Congress to pass legislation granting the agency the authority to mandate food recalls on its own.

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During the news conference, he said “one of the biggest loopholes” was the federal government’s lack of power to order recalls. The agency often does not publicize recalls, depending on companies’ assurances that suspect food products are removed from the pipeline before they get to the public.

“When Congress comes back from recess,” Glickman said, “I will have ready for them legislation that gives me the authority to order recalls as well as to impose civil fines.”

The administration supported two similar proposals earlier this decade, both of which failed.

Consumer activists said the steps raise concerns on two scores: the efficacy of government inspections and the safety of industry practices.

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“The USDA puts its seal on meat and poultry, and they’re supposed to make sure it’s safe and wholesome,” said Felicia Nestor, food safety project director at the Government Accountability Project, a whistle-blower-protection group in Washington. “The USDA should have had procedures in place and the enforcement resources to catch this problem before it got to this point.”

However, she said, the agency is so short-staffed that inspectors have a very difficult time just getting to these plants. The Government Accountability Project last year issued a report warning of the dangerous shortage of federal meat and poultry inspectors. Many inspectors, Nestor said, must cover more than a dozen plants in a day over a route of more than 100 miles.

“Practices in the meat industry have been fairly sloppy until the past [few] years brought that industry under a microscope,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group. “These are the kinds of practices that the industry will have to come to grips with.”

James “Bo” Reagan, executive director of science and technology at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn., a Denver trade group, agreed that meat plant managers will undoubtedly be scrutinizing their own practices in the wake of this massive recall and plant closing.

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“If I was running one, I sure would be going through everything that we were doing.”

Beyond that, he said the trade group is “very supportive of what the USDA is doing.”

Catherine Woteki, undersecretary for food safety, noted in an interview that the USDA is in a transition period. Beginning in late January, most meat and poultry plants will have to have in place a system of preventive controls, known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, or HACCP.

Under this program, long advocated by activists and the food industry, companies must identify points in their production processes most likely to lead to contamination and to create acceptable plans for preventing it. They will be forced, among other things, to begin testing for E. coli, which is carried in fecal matter. There will be no tolerance for E. coli O157:H7, which was responsible for the deaths of four children who ate Jack-in-the-Box hamburgers in 1993.

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Most experts maintain that scientifically based microbial testing, rather than inspectors’ current “poke and sniff” method, will help curb contamination. The role of USDA inspectors, Billy said, will shift to include oversight and verification of these programs in addition to old-fashioned inspection methods. Inspectors also will broaden their duties to include coverage of trucking and other transportation methods and retail outlets, in an effort to follow food from farm to table.

Hudson spokesman Robert Udowitz, in Washington, said the company had an HACCP program in place, ahead of the government’s mandated schedule. If that is so, that could feed the fears of HACCP opponents that such programs won’t be enough to halt all contamination.

Hudson shares fell 19 cents to close at $15.13 in New York Stock Exchange trading.

Times wire services contributed to this story.

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