September 22, 1997


OAKLAND, CA -- The recall of 25 million pounds of ground beef by Hudson Foods, produced in its state-of-the-art processing facility located in Columbus, Nebraska, is the largest recall in the history of the meat industry. The volume of product implicated escalated over a 10-day period from 20,000 pounds to 25 million pounds. USDA has launched both an agency investigation and an investigation by its Office of Inspector General, the results of both of which are pending.

Based upon the facts known about the Hudson recall, National Meat Association can only conclude that something is very, very wrong about the entire episode. The facility is one of the newest and considered one of the most up-to-date, state-of-the-art in the industry. It was under USDA/FSIS supervision pursuant to the Federal Meat Inspection Act. Because of the types of customers it serviced, it was also subjected to review audits by professionals retained by its major customers specifically for the purpose of meeting the highest possible industry standards. To the best of the public knowledge, it more than met the standards to produce wholesome, safe meat.

Under pressure from USDA, the quantity of the recall went from 20,000 pounds on August 12, to 40,000 pounds on August 14, to 1.2 million pounds on August 15. The 1.2 million pounds represented product manufactured on June 5-7. The quantity then jumped on August 21 to all of the ground beef produced by the facility after June 5, a total of 25 million pounds of ground beef. The theory underlying the expansion of the recall was that rework from one day had apparently been used in a subsequent dayís production. The use of small quantities of rework, for example broken patties which are not boxed and shipped, but are put back into the patty-making process, has been an operating practice throughout the industry and well known to and permitted by USDA, but at Hudson, it became the basis for expanding the recall from the original implicated product to six weeks production. The probability that any of this rework might have passed along E.coli O157:H7 into the product manufactured on each of the succeeding 42 days is extraordinarily unlikely and, to the best of our knowledge, not based on any microbiological testing by the agency. This huge expansion of the recall happened at the same time that the Administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service was announcing that Hudson had done nothing wrong, and that the E.coli O157:H7 had apparently come into the plant with product from an outside source.

Meanwhile the agency apparently failed to take rapid action to identify that outside source. Part of this can be attributed to the agency's testing program for E.coli O157:H7, which focuses on end products and not the originating source of the microorganism. But, for whatever reason, it was only on September 15, more than three weeks after the total recall and plant closure that the agency began its follow-up visits to Hudson Foods' beef suppliers, and there still appears to be no investigation in progress to trace the source to the livestock which would have been the most likely source of the pathogen.

In the interim, the agency has directed very little attention to alerting consumers about the proper techniques for home preparation of frozen patties. Frozen patties are carefully handled by restaurants using computer developed cooking schedules. As part of its public education outreach, FSIS has an obligation to provide much more information to consumers about the extra precautions that are needed to ensure that frozen ground meat and poultry may be charred on the outside and still frozen or cold inside, and that cooking techniques for frozen products are different from those for fresh chilled product. With a cluster of reported illnesses associated with home preparation of frozen patties, it is even more important that the agency move aggressively forward with this effort.

As a result of the actions taken by USDA, Hudson's patty processing plant was forced to close by USDA, and was subsequently sold to the nation's largest beef and pork packer and Hudson's main business, poultry processing sold to the nation's largest poultry company.

What we see with Hudson is not an agency lacking authority to recall or penalize. Using its existing authority, FSIS forced the recall of 25 million pounds of product, most of which was only remotely connected with the production implicated in the reports of illness from Colorado. Using its existing authority, FSIS caused the transfer of what is perhaps the nation's most modern beef grinding plant, at an apparent firesale price, to the nationís largest beef packer, and the sale of the Hudson parent company to the nation's largest poultry packer. And this sudden dramatic increase in concentration was triggered by the same Department of Agriculture which deplores that it has only limited authority over increasing concentration in the meat and poultry packing industries. With Hudson, not only did the agency have more than enough legal authority; it over-used that authority because it provided no public demonstration of a statistically significant risk to consumers that 25 million pounds of beef were adulterated.

What the Hudson incident does show is that there are authorities that USDA ought to use more boldly and intelligently:

1. In addressing the scope of a recall, the agency ought to identify a statistically significant risk that product may be adulterated and not just some speculative connection, such as its sudden change of policy on rework.

2. Itís time for USDA to move promptly to identify sources of bacterial contamination involved in outbreaks of illness, whether from E.coli O157:H7 or some other microbial hazard. Random testing of end product provides no statistically significant protection to consumers, and building consumer confidence based on negative findings of end product testing is deceptive and misleading. The FSIS testing program needs to be re-oriented to emphasize finding the sources of bacterial contamination which will allow USDA and industry to begin the truly key step of eradicating the bacteria at the source through techniques such as competitive exclusion.

3. Itís time to alert consumers to the special attention necessary when cooking frozen patties. The consumer deserves the best possible chance to protect home and family.

Talk of mandatory recall authority, adminstrative withdrawals of inspection and civil penalities has nothing to do with the events at Hudson Foods. There was more than enough USDA authority. Hudson paid an extraordinarily heavy penalty. The proper response to the Hudson recall is to incorporate the things identified above (evaluation of consumer risk, identification of bacterial sources and consumer information) into future recalls, so that those recalls will be more effective and less clumsy. This will benefit all Americans, consumers and packers alike.

USDA's request for additional recall authority is simply unresponsive to the public health concerns that arise from this massive recall or from the possibility that E.coli O157:H7 may be present in the food supply, (and not only in the meat supply). Used wisely and properly, USDA has authority to control product that is adulterated, including: Retention Authority for product on official establishment premises; Detention Authority for product not on official establishment premises; and Seizure Authority for product not on official establishment premises.

Anyone who transports or sells adulterated product is subject to criminal penalties. Where there is reason to believe that adulterated meat or poultry is in commerce, FSIS under its current practices, can request that the establishment conduct a recall. Recalls are currently determined through collaborative, cooperative efforts by USDA's Emergency Response Staff working with the officials at the establishment that produced the product. Only in rare instances has an establishment been uncooperative with FSIS. In such cases, the establishmentís owners and managers risk criminal prosecution while FSIS can immediately institute retention, detention, seizure and, perhaps the most persuasive power of all, publicity.

Under the existing statutory requirements, establishments are required to keep records and to provide them to FSIS officials. When issues of recall occur, a company's cooperation to produce records is essential and has traditionally met very high standards of compliance. Records are complex and differ in format from firm to firm. Processors and distributors have been almost universally cooperative with USDA and other agencies in identifying and recovering product in recall situations and USDA has existing authority to obtain these records in the event that a firm is not forthcoming.

National Meat Association believes that USDA's rush to seek additional authorities misreads the lessons of the Hudson recall. USDA needs to make better use of its existing authorities, so that consumers are better protected by risk evaluation, traceback and consumer information. National Meat Association will be pleased to work proactively with the Department in these activities; it cannot support the premature and unjustified request for additional authorities to coerce and punish firms who, every day, make enormous efforts to comply with the law to provide safe and wholesome meat for consumers, and who utilize every USDA- permitted technology to reduce pathogens.