One failed test sinks family business


Dan Kotara’s 35 years of grinding meat into hamburger ended last year after a single positive test for a potentially deadly strain of E. coli. Unable to market thousands of pounds of meat, he rented a trash bin and doused the food in black ink to render it unusable.

His loss: an estimated $25,000.

After that August test, Kotara decided he could no longer risk another costly positive result. He laid off his eight employees and sold the grinders, massive freezers and other equipment from his low-slung building in Chicago. He is selling his building, too, so it can be razed for a parking lot.

What rankles Kotara is that federal meat-safety inspectors never identified the source of the contamination or connected it to a deficiency at his small plant. He could do everything right at Prange Meats Inc., his family business, yet still lose money because of shoddy practices by one of his suppliers, he concluded.

“Is this the right way to do things? No, I don’t think so,” Kotara said as he walked through his empty plant. “The right way to do things is to address the problem at the root, and that’s on the kill floor.”

The closing of Prange Meats is emblematic of a persistent problem with meat safety that the Chicago Tribune examined last month: The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not try to identify the source of contamination after a routine test comes up positive.

The case shows how one incident can result in the closing of a business built up over decades, no matter how committed it is to safety and sanitation. By all accounts, Kotara had a good record, without a single positive test for E. coli before last year.

Kotara said he could have absorbed the financial loss, but the chance of another test coming back positive was more uncertainty than he could take.

“I’m making hamburger patties,” Kotara said. “Really, who needs all of this aggravation?”

Kotara said as much in a note to Jay Wenther, executive director of the American Assn. of Meat Processors, an industry group composed mostly of smaller, independent grinders and processors. Kotara had been a member for 15 years.

Processors of all sizes are growing frustrated with the challenges and risks of the business, Wenther said in an interview. Eliminating E. coli is impossible, he said, unless changes are made at the slaughterhouses, and even then it’s hard to achieve. One measure that might help, Wenther said, would be irradiating whole carcasses to kill pathogens.

“While we’re doing as much as we can, the general public wants 100% safe food,” he said. “But that’s not very realistic.”

In mid-August, a USDA inspector took a 1-pound sample of ground beef from a machine that makes hamburger patties, boxed it up and sent it to a lab in St. Louis to be tested for salmonella andE. coli 0157:H7, the dangerous strain of E. coli that can cause kidney failure and other serious ailments.

Kotara had received the meat and the trim, totaling more than 13,000 pounds, from two of his suppliers, one in Australia and the other in Chicago. The Chicago firm, City Foods Inc., in turn was supplied by a company in Omaha, said a spokeswoman for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Tests for E. coli done at the suppliers’ facilities were negative, Kotara said.

Kotara said his plant typically was tested by federal inspectors about once a month, though sometimes more frequently during warmer months.

Because inspectors take for testing only a small portion from what often is a huge amount of meat, contaminated products can pass through a distribution chain yet still test negative for the presence of E. coli, food safety experts said.

The meat also had been subject to at least one intervention step, a measure aimed at eliminating or controlling E. coli., such as treating meat with steam sprays and anti-microbial washes.

Still, somehow, the sample was tainted. Kotara never learned how or where it was contaminated but insists it was not at his plant. Several follow-up tests for E. coli, Kotara said, all were negative.

“Same machines. Same employees. Same processes,” he said. “And the tests were negative.”

A USDA spokeswoman said Prange’s record showed “no trends that demonstrate inadequate food-safety systems” and no evidence of noncompliance since 2005.

Experts agreed it was unlikely, though not impossible, that a grinder would be the source of E. coli contamination. The more likely culprit, the spokeswoman said, is the slaughterhouse.

Mills writes for the Chicago Tribune.