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Hamburger recall rises to 25 million pounds

Meat plant workers

Burger King, Boston Market anticipate shortages

August 21, 1997
Web posted at: 11:37 p.m. EDT (0337 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The nation's largest beef recall got a whole lot larger Thursday, as Hudson Foods moved to take 25 million pounds of ground beef off the market at the behest of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The company also closed its beef processing plant in Columbus, Nebraska, where federal investigators say quarter-pound hamburger patties were found contaminated with potentially deadly E. coli bacteria.

Hudson Foods agreed to voluntarily take those actions at the request of federal inspectors, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman announced Thursday. In a statement, the company pledged to fully cooperate with the USDA's investigation.

Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman explains the USDA action
468K/43 sec. AIFF or WAV sound

"The objectives of our investigation and the (USDA) investigation are the same -- to assure consumers safe, healthy and wholesome food products," said James T. Hudson, chairman of the Arkansas-based company.

Much of beef already eaten

Much of the beef being recalled has likely already been sold and consumed, agriculture department officials said. Hamburger with E. coli contamination, if cooked thoroughly to a temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit (71 degrees Celsius), is not harmful. But if undercooked, it can cause serious illness and even death.

The company had already recalled 1.2 million pounds of ground beef last week, which means Thursday's agreement between Hudson and the USDA will expand the recall more than 20 times.

Ground beef stats

Still, the amount recalled represents less than 1 percent of the 8 billion pounds of beef produced in the United States each year and accounts for less than 7 percent of Hudson Foods' annual sales.

At least two restaurant chains say the recall could affect their customers.

Burger King restaurants, which uses Hudson patties in its Whopper sandwiches, said up to 25 percent of its restaurants could experience temporary shortages.

"We ask for your continued patience and loyalty," said Burger King President Paul Clayton.

CNN's Eugenia Halsey on the scope of the recall
94K/8 sec. AIFF or WAV sound

Boston Market, which uses Hudson ground beef in its meatloaf, said that until new supplies arrive, about 40 percent of its restaurants won't have meatloaf on the menu.

Hudson beef patties were also sold to Safeway, WalMart and Sam's Club stores. All three said they had already pulled Hudson beef from the shelves before Thursday's expanded recall.

Reusing leftovers in plant led to recall

Federal officials say the reason for the addition recall is that Hudson took leftover raw materials from one day's production and used them in the next day's production.

USDA Consumer Hotline:  1-800-535-4555; Hudson Foods Consumer Hotline:  1-800-447-2670

Inspectors could not determine if materials used during the period in early June, when the E. coli-laden patties are believed to have come out of the plant, might have found their way into subsequent production days. So the decision was made to close the plant, destroy all product on hand and recall any Hudson hamburger from Columbus still on the market.

Agriculture officials and Hudson both say the E. coli contamination likely originated outside the plant, probably at the slaughterhouse. Beef can become contaminated with E. coli when it comes in contact with intestinal materials during the slaughtering process.

Glickman said the plant would remain closed "until they have adopted far more stringent safety standards that we have specifically laid out for them, based on what we have found in our investigation."

"These are non-negotiable proposals. The plant will not reopen until they are all met," Glickman said.

As secretary of agriculture, Glickman does not have the legal authority to order the plant closed. But he could indirectly close it the by withdrawing federal inspectors from the facility, which would render Hudson unable to legally ship its product.

"If necessary, I will do that to halt operations, until I am comfortable telling the American people that this food is safe," he said.

Glickman: Contamination contained

The contaminated beef traced to the Hudson plant in Columbus has been linked to less than 20 illnesses, Glickman said. The compares to more than 700 E. coli-related cases during an outbreak in the Pacific Northwest in 1993, after which federal food inspection procedures were strengthened.

"All the evidence at this point indicates that we have contained the outbreak," he said. "That is a remarkable achievement. Given the quantities of food, it certainly could have been far worse."

Hudson meat plant

Glickman also said he would press Congress to give him the authority, as agriculture secretary, to order recalls of contaminated products and assess civil fines against processors for putting contaminated products on the market.

"Most folks would be shocked to know that industry, and not federal food safety experts, ultimately make the decision as to whether or not food is recalled when the public's safety is compromised," Glickman said.

"There's really no question that the American people want government doing everything it can to insure that the food that is put on the table is safe."

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