USDA Widens Investigation of Arkansas Meat Company
By Rick Weiss
Hudson Foods, the Arkansas-based meat processing company that has come under federal investigation for its distribution of about 5 million potentially contaminated hamburger patties, was responsible in 1995 for the nation's largest ever meat recall. Just last month, Hudson was fined more than $300,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for repeated violations of worker safety rules.
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman yesterday said he was concerned about the company's history and was escalating his investigation of the large meat processor.
The expanded investigation follows the department's determination that Hudson had grossly underestimated the amount of hamburger that may have been tainted in June by E. coli O157:H7, a potentially deadly bacteria. On Friday, the department ordered a recall of 1.2 million pounds of the company's frozen beef patties, which were distributed nationwide to grocery stores, fast-food restaurants and other outlets. Sixteen people, all of them in Colorado, are known to have become ill from the burgers.
Glickman said it was not yet clear whether the beef contamination, which was probably caused by fecal contamination during processing, was a rare event at the plant or was part of a "serious systemic breach of compliance" with food safety rules. But he said he was bothered by both the company's initial underestimation of how much beef was involved and its status as the national record holder for meat recalls.
"Obviously, it causes me great concern that the same company is responsible for the two largest call backs," Glickman said.
Hudson Foods, which has headquarters in Rogers, Ark., is the fifth-largest producer of chicken products and the 12th-largest producer of turkey products in the country, and is a supplier of beef products to such major chains as Burger King, Boston Market and Wal-Mart. With 1996 sales of $1.4 billion, it is ranked 791 out of the nation's top 1,000 companies by Fortune magazine and 29th among the top 35 food companies.
In the 1995 poultry case, about 3 million pounds of Hudson Foods Delightful Farms Finely Ground Turkey were recalled because of contamination with tiny shards of bone, said USDA spokesman Tom Amontree.
In that case, as in the current burger case, estimates of how much meat was tainted rose over a number of days. The turkey recall originally was for about 1 million pounds, until audits revealed that more meat and additional package sizes were involved.
In the burger case, which involves patties made during three days in June, the company first told the USDA last Tuesday that 20,000 pounds of beef were involved. It raised that estimate to 40,000 pounds the next day, but USDA inspectors determined on Friday that the correct figure was 1.2 million pounds. The recall is the largest ever for bacterial contamination of meat.
In a statement released Friday, Hudson said, "We wish to state emphatically that Hudson Foods has moved with all dispatch as information became available and has in no way tried to hide any information from the USDA or the public. The reason for the expansion of volume in the [beef] recall was that the USDA, acting out of an abundance of caution . . . with Hudson Foods to ensure the public's safety, expanded the volume to include all production of the days in question rather than portions of that production. When it comes to the public's safety, we are not going to take any chances."
Glickman said yesterday he had ordered a team of meat inspectors from the department's Food Safety and Inspection Service, and criminal investigators from its Office of the Inspector General, to join others who flew last week to Hudson's processing plant in Columbus, Neb.
Inspectors will review the plants' records, said USDA Undersecretary Cathie Woteki, and will conduct tests for E. coli during each of the next 15 shifts.
The burger scare comes at a time when Hudson is already facing $332,500 in federal fines for worker safety violations at its Noel, Mo., poultry processing plant, according to a July 22 U.S. Newswire report. OSHA cited the company for alleged "willful, serious and repeat" violations that included blocked emergency exits and improper labeling of hazardous materials, the report said.
"By repeatedly endangering its employees' lives, Hudson Foods brought these penalties on itself," the report quoted Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman as saying. Officials from Hudson and OSHA could not be reached for comment yesterday.
On an encouraging note, a scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said preliminary studies have found no evidence that Hudson's burgers will prove responsible for a large number of E. coli food poisoning cases.
Robert Tauxe, chief of CDC's food-borne and diarrheal diseases branch, said state health departments in Washington state, Minnesota, Texas and Massachusetts were analyzing the genetic fingerprints of E. coli O157:H7 isolates taken from patients in those states and comparing them to the fingerprint of the strain found in the burgers.
Exact numbers are not yet available and the sample size remains small, but it is encouraging, Tauxe said, that the number of matches so far is not large.
"It's still quite early returns," Tauxe said, "but we do not have evidence that there is a large problem."
The microbial DNA fingerprinting system is part of a new federal food-borne disease surveillance system being implemented in all 50 states. As part of that program, state health department scientists are analyzing the genetic identities of all samples of E. coli 0157:H7 isolated from patients.
The genetic fingerprints, which appear as a pattern of bars resembling the price codes on grocery products, are fed into a computer that sends the information to the CDC. If samples match, it indicates a widespread outbreak is being caused by a single source.
Staff researcher Colleen Allen contributed to this report.
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