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WASHINGTON - According to an audit released today by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's inspector general, meat inspectors' repeated warnings that ground beef at a ConAgra plant was contaminated with harmful bacteria were ignored. The warnings were given months before a highly publicized food-poisoning outbreak last year that caused 46 illnesses in 16 states.
The independent arm of the USDA prepared the investigative report at the request of California Rep. Henry Waxman and other Democrats. Last year the lawmakers criticized the USDA, saying that weeks before the July recall, federal meat inspectors knew the plant repeatedly tested positive for E. coli 0157:H7 but did nothing.
ConAgra, which owned the plant at the time of the July 2002 recall, later sold it to Swift & Co.
The new report had harsh criticism for the plant and the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, which oversees U.S. meat and poultry plants.
"Our audit found that neither ConAgra nor FSIS effectively fulfilled their responsibilities," the report said. "Data were available to both ConAgra and FSIS in the period prior to the recall that indicated E. coli 0157:H7 contamination was becoming a continuous problem at ConAgra."
The bacteria was found in at least 63 tests conducted by the plant in 2002, the report said. But federal meat inspectors did not intervene because they believed the FSIS had no authority to review tests conducted by the plant.
Federal meat inspectors and regulators should have monitored the plant more closely to ensure that ConAgra's food safety checkpoints were adequate, the report said.
The USDA investigators described the recall as "ineffective and inefficient," noting that only 3 million pounds of the recalled meat was recovered by the end of January 2003. The recall was delayed because of poor recordkeeping, it said.
A spokesman for Swift & Co. told Reuters the Colorado plant followed all measures prescribed by the USDA, and made its internal E. coli test results available to meat inspectors.
The Colorado plant has adopted new technology to kill foodborne pathogens, including a hot water spray that virtually sterilizes each carcass before it is processed into ground beef. The E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria is killed at temperatures of at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
The FSIS said it has tightened procedures to better protect public health since the recall last summer.
For example, the FSIS has adopted a speedier process to identify suppliers of contaminated meat after it is discovered by consumers, said FSIS Administrator Garry McKee. The agency also eliminated a program that exempted ConAgra and other meat processors from the FSIS's own testing program for E. coli. And federal inspectors now undergo training focused on public health, and systematically review plant-generated testing data, McKee said.
McKee cited a "dramatic reduction" in the rate of positive tests for E. coli 0157:H7 in samples collected in 2003. The rate of positive test samples at meat plants was 0.32 percent so far this year, down from 0.78 percent in 2002.