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As E. Coli Outbreak Grows, USDA to Probe Delay of Topps Ground Beef Recall

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With the number of E. coli cases linked to the Topps ground beef recall growing everyday, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is facing criticism over the timing of its September 25 recall announcement. At a teleconference yesterday to explain an 18 day lag between lab tests that confirmed the presence of E. coli in some Topps meat and the announcement of the first recall, officials from the USDA conceded that the system for inspecting and recalling food needs to be improved.

Last month, the Topps Meat Company recalled nearly 22 million pounds of E. coli tainted meat after it was linked to an outbreak of E. coli poisoning in several states. So far at least 30 people have become sick from the E. coli contaminated Topps ground beef, and 10 are hospitalized. The USDA first ordered a recall of more than 300,000 pounds of Topps frozen ground beef on September 25. That was followed by a much larger recall of 21.7 million pounds of meat just a few days later. The second announcement made the Topps ground beef recall the third largest meat recall in US history.

But yesterday, several media outlets reported that the USDA had confirmation that a Florida girl had been sickened by E. coli bacteria found in a package of Topps meat as early as September 7. During yesterday’s teleconference, Dr. Richard Raymond, Undersecretary of Food Safety for the USDA, said that the agency was following its normal protocol by waiting for further confirmation of the September 7 lab test results in Florida. However, he conceded that such confirmation was available on September 14, yet the USDA waited another 11 days before issuing the first Topps ground beef recall. Dr. Raymond said the USDA is not satisfied with the timing of the Topps meat recall, and promised that the USDA would take action to improve recall efficiency. “Since Sept. 25, in addition to issuing the recall, we have begun reviewing data related to the recall and our protocols to determine how we can improve in how we conduct them in future,” Dr. Raymond said.

Dr. Raymond also said that he was concerned that E. coli contamination of the US meat supply appeared to be on the rise. In the past few years, most E. coli outbreaks have been traced to fresh produce like spinach and lettuce. While E. coli contaminated meat had been a more serious problem a decade ago, meat processors had initiated safety measures that had significantly reduced the number of incidents of E. coli contaminated meat. But this year, the number of E. coli outbreaks tied to meat has risen sharply, as has the number of meat recalls.

Dr. Raymond said that the USDA could not explain the sudden surge in E. coli outbreaks tied to tainted meat. But he said that the USDA would be stepping up inspections and meat sampling in order to head off future E. coli outbreaks.

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