In the months before issuing a massive recall of its frozen hamburgers, Topps Meat Co. curtailed testing of ground beef and skipped other safeguards aimed at preventing contaminated meat from reaching consumers, according to a published report Tuesday.
Three batches of frozen patties tainted with a potentially fatal bacteria left the company's plant in Elizabeth, according to unnamed federal regulators cited by The New York Times.
To date, 40 people in eight states were sickened with E. coli infections linked to the Topps burgers.
Meanwhile, the USDA on Tuesday announced more steps it was taking to protect the public from E. coli infections from beef. Recent outbreaks have reversed a steady decline that began in 2000.
A USDA official said the investigation into the sources of the contaminated meat packaged by Topps was continuing.
Testing of Topps products revealed three different E. Coli genetic "fingerprints," said Kenneth Petersen, an assistant administrator at the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
"That indicates a breakdown in their system," Petersen said during a teleconference Tuesday.
Topps got beef parts from suppliers that tested the parts, he said. But Topps, at some point, began combining that meat with meat from suppliers who did not test for contamination, he said. The names of the suppliers were not released.
"Over time, it introduces the opportunity for contamination to get into their product," Petersen said.
Messages left for Topps officials were not immediately returned.
Second largest beef recall in U.S.
Topps recalled 21.7 million pounds of its patties in late September — the second-largest U.S. beef recall — and then closed its business.
The recall represented a year's worth of production for the company, which considered itself the nation's largest producer of frozen hamburgers, but much of the meat had already been eaten.
The Topps recall, and a subsequent recall of 840,000 pounds of frozen patties produced by Cargill Inc. at a plant in Butler, Wis., were linked to a handful of illnesses and renewed questions about the U.S. Agriculture Department's regulation system, which leaves many safety decisions to producers.
Topps was not a slaughterhouse; it took in cut beef and ground it. Many meatpackers like Topps test their finished product, such as frozen or raw hamburger, but that is not required, according to the American Meat Institute, a trade group.
Slaughterhouses are not required to test carcasses for pathogens, and if they do, they are not required to hold onto the meat until they get results, the AMI said.
USDA announces more testing
This year has seen 15 recalls — eight of which caused people to get sick — because of E. coli in beef, compared to just eight recalls in 2006 in which there were no reported illnesses, said Richard Raymond, USDA undersecretary for food safety.
He announced a series of actions designed to reduce E. coli contamination, including doing more testing at slaughterhouses and grinding operations that have had problems or which are not following federal recommendations.
The new effort should probably reduce E. coli contamination, said William D. Marler, a Seattle lawyer who represents victims of food-borne illness, including several who have sued Topps.
However, Marler added, "I'm still perplexed as to why, after all these years, they weren't doing this."
The O157:H7 strain of E. coli bacteria, which can be fatal to humans, is harbored in the intestines of cattle and can also get on their hides. Improper butchering and processing can cause the E. coli to get onto meat. Thorough cooking, to at least 160 degrees internal temperature, can destroy the bacteria.