Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this article incorrectly stated that the meat had been contaminated before it reached Whole Foods and attributed that statement to the company. Although the company said it pulled ground beef from some of its stores because it was processed by a plant linked to E. coli illnesses, the company did not speculate on how or where any meat may have been contaminated. Also, a photo caption incorrectly said that Whole Foods had recalled 1.2 million pounds of beef. It was Nebraska Beef that recalled that amount.

Beef Recalled by Whole Foods Fell Into Regulatory Gray Area

Last week Whole Foods recalled 1.2 million pounds of meat produced by Nebraska Beef under the Coleman Natural Meats brand. It was Nebraska Beef's second recall of the summer.
Last week Whole Foods recalled 1.2 million pounds of meat produced by Nebraska Beef under the Coleman Natural Meats brand. It was Nebraska Beef's second recall of the summer. (By Nati Harnik -- Associated Press)
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By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 12, 2008

It can be legal to sell steaks and roasts that carry a potentially deadly strain of E. coli. But it is not legal to sell that meat if it is going to be used to make ground beef. As meat makes its way from packer to distributor to retailer, those distinctions can get lost, as Whole Foods found out in last week's recall.

The natural food retailer pulled fresh ground beef from some of its stores after seven customers in Massachusetts fell ill with a strain of E. coli that has sickened people in 11 other states, the District and Canada.

The ground beef that Whole Foods recalled was made using primal or intact cuts -- meat typically used for steaks and roasts -- produced by Nebraska Beef under the Coleman Natural Meats brand, Whole Foods said.

Regulators do not monitor meat sold for steaks and roasts as closely as meat sold for ground beef because those primal cuts are less likely to make people sick. For example, if a steak is contaminated, the bacteria are most likely on the outside and killed during cooking. By contrast, with ground beef, the pathogen gets mixed in and can survive if the interior isn't heated to 160 degrees.

Whole Foods grinds its own beef in an attempt to assure quality and safety, said spokeswoman Kate Lowery. In this case, the company said, the cuts used had already been contaminated.

Coleman, a trusted supplier for Whole Foods and many other retailers, had sold its beef business and the right to sell under the Coleman Natural Meat brand on June 1 to Meyer Angus Natural. Coleman said Meyer hired Nebraska Beef to process its meat. Meyer did not return phone calls.

The E. coli strain that sickened the Whole Foods customers matches a strain found in primal cuts that Nebraska Beef produced on July 8, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As a result, Nebraska Beef on Friday recalled 1.2 million pounds of beef, its second recall this summer.

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service has in the past recalled small quantities of steaks and primal cuts. This is the largest recall of components of ground beef, said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington advocacy group. And because of that, she and other consumer advocates are saying it marks a shift in approach. They consider Nebraska Beef's latest recall a sign that the USDA is taking a tougher stand on meat packers that put contaminated meat into distribution.

"The agency is extending the reach of its E. coli recall policy in a way that could have monumental implications in the future and positive ones for public health," DeWaal said. "It is really a smart move by USDA to move their regulatory touch point to earlier in the food chain."

Meat industry leaders, however, said the USDA was exercising authority that it already had.

The agency's food safety unit "has taken the position previously that if intact beef that is intended for ground beef tests positive for E. coli O157, that beef is subject to recall," said Janet Riley, a spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute. "This does not appear to be a new policy."

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