Correction to This Article
ยท An Aug. 10 Page One article about a beef recall at Whole Foods Market misstated the day when the meat was pulled from stores and the extent of the recall. The grocery chain removed fresh ground beef from stores on the previous Wednesday and issued a formal recall on Friday in 25 states, the District and Canada.
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Whole Foods Recalls Beef Processed At Plant Long at Odds With USDA

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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.


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