bus Testing procedures delayed ConAgra's tainted meat recall

The Wall Street Journal

Why did it take three months for Con-Agra Foods Inc. to recall potentially tainted meat?

The answer has to do with the way meat recalls are made, a procedure that is now under review by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Flaws in the process are highlighted by the ConAgra case -- a recall of 19 million pounds so tardy that most of the meat in question had already been consumed.

Starting in mid-April, the Omaha-based company detected a virulent E. coli strain -- O157:H7 -- in some meat produced on 24 separate days at its Greeley, Colo., plant. Federal meat inspectors are stationed in the plant, but it isn't clear when senior USDA officials learned about the pattern. The USDA sounded no alarm until June 30 and took 19 more days before it persuaded ConAgra to launch the nation's second-largest meat recall.

The recall applied to meat sold as far back as April, but shoppers typically consume ground beef within a few days of buying it. The official toll: 29 people sick in eight states, including five children with permanent kidney damage. (E. coli can be killed if meat is thoroughly cooked.)


"Our customers have returned to us hardly anything -- less than hundreds of pounds," says Barry F. Scher, a spokesman for Giant Food Inc., which operates 188 supermarkets on the East Coast. At Kroger Co., asked about the amount of ground beef returned to the chain's 2,429 supermarkets, spokesman Gary Rhodes says: "It is a very, very small amount."

Tests weren't enough

A big reason for the delayed effect is that current rules call for the USDA to move into action only when it becomes clear that E. coli has escaped a meatpacking plant. Thus, the tests on 24 separate days that showed batches with the E. coli infection at the ConAgra cattle-slaughtering plant weren't enough for the government to alert the public.

It was only when the pathogen was detected in a random test outside the plant -- and on the way to consumers -- that regulators acted. Those procedures are now under review.

E. coli O157:H7 lives in cattle manure, which can fall into meat during the slaughtering process. In healthy adults, the bacterium causes bloody diarrhea but children are at much greater risk. In 1993, an outbreak tied to Jack in the Box Inc.'s hamburgers sickened hundreds of people and killed four children. The following year, the Clinton administration responded by beginning random tests.

"We are seeing more recalls but not less E. coli cases in humans," says Michael P. Doyle, director of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that E. coli O157:H7 continues to sicken about 73,000 people a year, a rate health officials think has changed little since the early 1990s.

In the most recent outbreak, public-health authorities say that many of the victims were infected by the bacterium weeks before the government raised its first public alarm.

Even after a government laboratory confirmed the presence of E. coli on June 19 in a sample of meat randomly collected from one of ConAgra's customers, the USDA waited 10 days to confront ConAgra. The agency has apologized publicly for that delay.


Meat producers generally test some of their ground beef for E. coli at the behest of several fast-food chains and retailers. Since the Jack in the Box outbreak, the government also tests for E. coli inside meatpacking plants, or lets the companies do the testing on its behalf, which is the case with ConAgra.

Some testing experts estimate that the meatpacking industry screens roughly 15 percent of its ground beef.

The hardest problem is getting accurate test results in time to do any good. Today's testing procedures take days, and meatpackers typically ship the vast majority of their meat untested. If they waited, the shelf life of their product would shrink.

E. coli O157:H7 is hard to find. It is easily mistaken for other organisms, and just 10 E. coli bacteria in one gram of meat is dangerous to children. But the quickest type of test -- based on antibody technology -- won't reliably detect a problem unless there are roughly 100,000 organisms present in the sample.

One of the most popular rapid tests is Reveal. Its maker, Neogen Corp. of Lansing, Mich., instructs users to incubate the sample for at least eight hours in order to increase the E. coli population to a detectable level.

The Reveal test

ConAgra uses the Reveal test and then takes two days to confirm with additional lab work whether its beef is contaminated, says company spokesman Jim Herlihy. Until the recall, ConAgra didn't wait for results before shipping out much of its ground beef and the scraps it supplied to other companies. ConAgra says that it now tests every lot of meat used to make ground beef at its six cattle-slaughter plants and that it waits to ship the meat until it gets a full report.

The move reduces the shelf life of its hamburger by a few days. Industry executives say it isn't clear whether other meatpackers intend to follow suit.

What To Read Next
Get Local