Recalled E. Coli Meat May Be
Put Into Canned Foods

David Migoya
Staff Writer


At least 68,000 pounds of E. coli-tainted beef linked to an 18.6 million-pound recall by ConAgra Beef Co. may turn up on dinner tables as ready-to-eat canned chili, meat spaghetti sauce, beef ravioli or some other meal.

Or, it might end up as pet food. Or fertilizer. And no one has to tell you it's there.

A spokesman for the Greeley-based beef company said Thursday that meat returned as a result of the nation's second-largest recall in history will be cooked and turned into food for people or pets, or nonfood products. Or both.

That consumers might buy a meal containing recalled meat is legal - and wholesome - according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The federal agency must OK the company's plans for recalled meat.

Cooking recalled meat is common practice in the food industry.

"I think we can say any product that is cooked per the guidelines established by the USDA and recommended by the Colorado Department of Health is perfectly safe for human consumption and to indicate otherwise is irresponsible," ConAgra spokesman Jim Herlihy said.

Consumers watching the ConAgra recall, however, may think differently.

"They're asking me to trust them again, and that's outrageous," said Lisa Scannell of Longmont. Her 5-year-old son, Alec Scholhamer, was sickened last month after eating a hamburger made with ConAgra meat.

"They always blame people for not cooking the meat even though they're the ones who put the E. coli there. I'm supposed to trust them now to cook it, too?"

A Colorado health official said recalled meat shouldn't end up as human food again.

"By definition of the federal recall, it's not fit for human consumption," said Patti Klocker, assistant director of the Colorado Department of Health and Environment Consumer Protection Division. "We recommend that humans don't consume it and that it shouldn't be turned into something edible."

Herlihy said he did not know how much of the meat has already been cooked or processed. He could not say if it will be sold to outside companies or to ConAgra-owned businesses, or how much will become nonfood products such as fertilizer and tallow.

"Cooking would render any pathogen harmless," he said.

The USDA agrees.

"An E. coli . . . contaminated beef product must not be distributed until it has been processed into a ready-to-eat product," according to federal regulations.

The regulations do not require companies to disclose whether products contain cooked, recalled meat.

There is no record of anyone getting sick from eating a product made with cooked recalled meat.

"Even though cooking it to 265 degrees makes it sterile, I still don't like poop in my chili," said Paul Johnson, acting chairman of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection unions. ConAgra issued a recall on June 30 for 354,200 pounds of ground beef contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, a potentially lethal variant. The company expanded the recall on July 19 after the USDA learned ConAgra made ground beef from untested meat on days the slaughterhouse found E. coli in meat it had tested.

ConAgra removed the tested meat - about 56,000 pounds of it - from ground-beef processing. Because it was not recalled, ConAgra does not need USDA approval for how to use it.

Of the original 354,200 pounds recalled, only 12,000 pounds have been returned. There are no figures yet for the amount returned from the expanded, 18.6 million-pound recall.

"If it was positive (for E. coli) and routed for cooking or rendering, that would be standard procedure," Herlihy said.

Federal records show that last year ConAgra intercepted 20 tons of E. coli-tainted meat from its Greeley plant that were destined to become hamburgers at a national fast-food chain. The meat was eventually reboxed, labeled "For Cooking Purposes Only" and shipped to International Home Foods Inc., a ConAgra-owned company in Pennsylvania.

IHF brand names include common products such as Chef Boyardee, Libby's Canned Meats, and PAM cooking spray. ConAgra officials would not say whether International used any of the 20 tons of meat in its food products.

In 1997, Hudson Foods planned to sell 25 million pounds of recalled ground beef to companies that made pre-cooked products such as TV dinners and burritos. The recall happened after 17 Coloradans were sickened with E. coli. It was unclear Thursday whether Hudson followed through.

Tainted meat sometimes is destined for animals.

In early 2000, Callaway Packing in Delta took 3,750 pounds of meat recalled because of E. coli and sold it to Grand Valley By-Products in Grand Junction. Owner Melvin Seevers said his firm cooked the meat and sold it to companies that made pet food and animal feed out of it.

Sometimes, recalled meat is buried in a landfill.

Whatever happens to the ConAgra meat, victims of food-borne bacteria say there's really only one solution to tainted beef: a clean slaughterhouse.

"I know putting it into chili isn't something many people realize, but the focus needs to be on the safety of the meat coming from the plant," said Karen Taylor Mitchell, executive director of Safe Tables Our Priority in Burlington, Vt. "We want meat and poultry to be safe in the first place."

David Migoya can be reached at <> or 303-820-1506.


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