WASHINGTON (FNS) -- Just as the meat industry began to regroup from the largest federal meat recall on record, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials here last week launched into another inquiry over the source of E. coli bacteria in ground beef.
eef at supermarkets in search of the bacteria. Great Valu officials could not be reached for comment on the results of the test in question.
The E. coli finding at Great Valu actually occurred a month ago, leading to the store recalling 40 to 60 pounds of ground beef sold Sept. 3 and 4, according to the USDA.
The agency last week disclosed the recall and said it had dispatched investigators to the company shipping the meat, Beef America Co., from a processing plant in Norfolk, Neb. Meat from the plant is not under recall, a USDA spokeswoman said.
Two samples were taken at the store: one after beef had been run through a grinder not cleaned before the test and another from an unopened package. The different locations in sampling have made it difficult to determine the source of the contamination, the agency spokeswoman said.
The inquiry follows August's record recall of 25 million pounds of ground beef from Hudson Foods' Columbus, Neb., plant, the source of frozen hamburger patties contaminated by E. coli and eaten by several people in Colorado, who subsequently became ill. USDA and Hudson officials have said the source of E. coli probably came from outside the processing plant.
Officials with Beef America couldn't be reached for comment, but were quoted in press reports as being unclear why the USDA was so readily implicating the company as a source of Great Valu's contaminated meat. "We know that there was one other supplier's product there at the store at the same time," a company spokesman said, according to press reports.
The USDA's use of publicity during such inquiries, as well as during recalls, has been a sore point with the meat industry. Industry officials have complained that the agency's publicity can create misperceptions among consumers about meat processors' efforts to reduce the presence of E. coli, and that consumers shouldn't be led to believe companies can eliminate the bacteria from the food supply.
E. coli occurs naturally in cattle's intestines. Its presence is considered a particular health risk in ground beef since hamburgers and the like are often undercooked, which means any lingering bacteria may not be killed.
"These situations will occur and they need to be dealt with by standardized protocol," said Jim Hodges, senior vice president for regulatory affairs at the American Meat Institute, Arlington, Va.