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Secretary of Agriculture Addresses Beef Recall

Aired July 19, 2002 - 12:53   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman now live as she talks about the massive beef recall.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

ANN VENEMAN, SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE: ... and the Colorado Department of Health on this issue. In addition, ConAgra has been very cooperative throughout this review process. Our initial investigation has determined that product destined to become ground beef that was produced -- that was produced in the Greeley, Colorado, plant had a heightened possibility of containing e.coli 0157h7.

The scientific and technical review of plant practices and company records has resulted today in the USDA announcing an expanded voluntary recall of approximately 18 million pounds of beef trim and fresh frozen ground beef products.

This action is being taken as a cautionary measure to ensure the protection of public health. Public health is our number one priority, and it is our number one concern.

We are recommending that consumers and businesses who have purchased products on these specific dates with specific lot numbers either return the product to the point of purchase or discard the product. As well, it is important to remind consumers and cooking establishments to always follow proper food safety and handling practices that includes fully cooking and properly preparing foods. Proper cooking kills harmful bacteria, and in the case of ground beef, it should always be fully cooked.

Specific food safety and product recall information is available on the USDA Web site, at www.usda.gov, and through our meat and poultry consumer hot line that, and that number is 1-800-535-4555. I encourage the media to please include this information in your reports so that we can best help to inform the public about this recall and how to find the specific information.

Again, I want it emphasize that this action is being taken as a cautionary measure to protect the public health and to protect the public from any potential illness.

The United States has one of the safest food supplies anywhere in the world. Processing facilities and food companies, and the government, take many preventive measures to ensure that our food supply is safe. USDA along with other federal, state, and local enforcement agencies have strong programs and personnel throughout the country who work tirelessly to protect our food supply.

USDA's investigation at this particular meat processing facility is ongoing. Our goal is to determine what happened and to ensure public health and safety. And we will continue that swiftly and responsibly, to insure a safe and wholesome food supply for consumers.

I want to thank you again for being here. Thank you to all of you in the media who are helping to inform consumers about these important food safety issues and how to get the necessary information. Thank you very much.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

VENEMAN: Can you please identify yourselves as you ask the questions. Thank you.

QUESTION: Mike Emanuel with Fox News.

Can you a little sense and perspective of how big this recall is compared to other recalls historically?

VENEMAN: This is one of the largest. It is not the largest. The largest recall was in 1997, the Hudson Beef recall, and that was about 25 million pounds this. Is about 18, under our estimate.

QUESTION: Kathleen Koch with CNN.

What are the exact dates that consumers need to look for on the packaging. And do you believe that -- how much of this product is still out there on the selves or potentially in consumers' refrigerators.

VENEMAN: I'm going to have Undersecretary Murano answer that.

DR. ELSA MURANO, DEPT. OF AGRICULTURE: I'd be happy to. This is product that was produced from April 12 to July 11. And of course, we have no way of knowing for sure how much product is still in consumers' hands. So we are issuing this recall to try to collect as much of that product as possible, and certainly, we expect to have a good response on this.

QUESTION: Jake Thompson (ph) from (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

Do you know, from the testing you have done at the plant, have you found e.coli in the testing there at plant as well?

VENEMAN: Well, the testing is ongoing, and we are currently testing 100 percent in the plant. And so all the product is getting, at this point in time, 100 percent testing because of the ongoing review.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) have you found any e.coli at the plant?

MURANO: Not since July 11. We have been testing 100 percent of the product, and there have been no more positives found.

QUESTION: Bob Hager with NBC. I'm thinking a consumer who'd already bought ground beef would have no way to tell a lot number or a brand or anything, I think.

VENEMAN: Well, there are package labels on a number of these packages, and you can tell from inside the USDA inspection label: There is a number there, and they can compare that to the list that will appear on our Web site.

MURANO: I would just urge consumers to certainly, if they have any doubt at all, to call our meat and poultry hot line, 1-800-535- 4555. And certainly, they could can the store where they purchased the product. It would urge them, certainly, to do that if they have any doubt.

VENEMAN: And let me add one more thing. It is very important to reemphasize and emphasize again the importance of cooking hamburger thoroughly to insure -- if the hamburger is cooked thoroughly, consumers should be assured that illness will not occur. So it's very important.

QUESTION: Is the USDA confident that all suspect beef has been recalled. And also, it took USDA 10 days to contact ConAgra after the e.coli was found. Could a quicker response have prevented the 19 illnesses?

MURANO: As soon as we knew that there were illnesses -- and this was July 10, this one we were first aware that there was an outbreak in Colorado -- we were already at ConAgra plant. And so as soon as we heard about the outbreak, we just simply, as the secretary mentioned, dispatched additional experts to that plant there. So there was no delay. In fact, what we waited for was confirmation from the Centers for Disease Control, which came on July 15, that the pattern of the organism that they isolated from one of the patients was the same as pattern of an organism we had isolated ourselves when he had done routine testing and issued a recall June 30 of product.

So June 30, when there was recall of product earlier last month, there were no outbreaks that anybody knew of. So actually, because of our June 30 recall and our investigation of that, those events, we were already in the plant, and so there was no delay.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) ABC News. You say that the investigation is ongoing. Does that mean at this point you are not sure how the e-coli got into the plant and into the product?

VENEMAN: Well, I think it's important to recognize that e-coli is an organism that you deal with in the meat supply. And we do everything we can to keep it out. Companies do everything they can. But again, it is -- it is -- we're looking at every aspect of the plant. The plant's looking at every aspect as well. The plant doesn't want to send anything that's not the safest product possible. So together with the plant, we're conducting a thorough review. As Dr. Murano said, we've been testing everything since July 11, with no positive results -- Elizabeth. QUESTION: Elizabeth Becker, "New York Times." Is there a label that consumers should be looking for? We know that this is from one plant. But is this a particular grocery store chain? Does it have a label? How would I know going home whether my hamburger came from Colorado.

MURANO: Correct. Through this recall, what will be released is names of stores and so forth where the product would have reached it. Unfortunately, some of the product probably was opened up at the stores and repackaged and so forth. So it may be difficult for some consumers just to base what they do on looking for lot numbers or code numbers.

So I agree with the secretary: Urge everybody to certainly cook their ground beef thoroughly. By that mean we mean 160 degrees internal temperature -- and they can do that very easily with a meat thermometer -- to be absolutely sure. And certainly, they can call their grocery store and they can tell them if they have any doubt whether they purchased product from ConAgra or not.

VENEMAN: Roger?

PHILLIPS: We're going to break away from this press conference at the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., where Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman is addressing reporters about the 18 million pounds of meat being recalled due to e-coli concerns. This is meat coming from the ConAgra Food Incorporated in Greeley, Colorado. We're told now 21 states being effected.

Well, how do you know if you have bad beef? Well, they're making the point it's very hard to check. So they're recommending if you do have any ground beef, you cook it thoroughly. They're saying an internal temperature of 160 degrees; you can check that with a thermometer.

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