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WASHINGTON - Less than a week after the USDA "declared war" on dangerous E. coli bacteria, agribusiness giant Cargill Inc. announced a voluntary recall of about 400,000 pounds of beef after federal authorities linked it to an E. coli outbreak that has sickened at least 56 people in the Midwest.
An investigation by USDA found tainted ground beef from Milwaukee-based Emmpak Foods Inc. the cause of at least 40 of the illnesses in the three states. Excel, a unit of privately held Cargill, purchased Emmpak Foods in August 2001.
"USDA has notified Emmpak Foods in Milwaukee that there could be a possible link between some illnesses being reported in Wisconsin and Minnesota," Cargill spokesman Mark Klein told Reuters.
Klein said the company would recall about 400,000 pounds of beef produced at the Wisconsin plant between Aug. 20 and Aug. 24. The beef was sold to retail distributors and wholesalers in a number of states. The company said it would not be a nationwide recall.
The USDA has come under fire in recent months for not doing enough to protect the public from contaminated meat. In its declaration of war on the deadly strain of E. coli, the USDA said it would order random testing of all U.S. meat processing plants as a precaution. Companies were also ordered to review their food safety measures and adopt stricter ones to reduce the risk of contamination.
Consumer groups said the Cargill recall was further evidence that USDA must take stronger action.
"It's time for Congress to look at the question of giving USDA mandatory recall authority so the size of the recall can be determined by the government and not by the company," said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Congressional investigators with the General Accounting Office last week said USDA food safety inspectors were not reliable in identifying or documenting companies that failed to meet federal standards.