The Checkout

Meanwhile, in Nebraska...

Annys Shin

With tomatoes getting all the attention--or should I say Mystery Produce--you may have missed the latest ground beef outbreak in the Midwest.

On Thursday, Nebraska Beef, an Omaha-based meat packer, said it was recalling 5.3 million pounds of hamburger meat that it produced since in mid-May after it was linked to an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in Ohio and Michigan. The Kroger grocery chain which bought from Nebraska Beef is pulling ground beef from stores across the country.

This was an expansion of a recall announced Monday of only a half a million pounds.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service explained the expanded recall thus:

FSIS has concluded that the production practices employed by Nebraska Beef, Ltd. are insufficient to effectively control E. coli O157:H7 in their beef products that are intended for grinding. The products subject to recall may have been produced under insanitary conditions.

The products subject to recall were further processed into ground beef at other firms, and will likely not bear the establishment number "EST 19336" on products made available for direct consumer purchase.

In a press release issued before the expanded recall notice, the company said in its defense that it had "processed over 10 billion pounds of product without a confirmed customer illness."

There is a lot of back story to this recall.

In 2003, USDA went to court to try to shut down Nebraska Beef 's Omaha packing plant after citing it for numerous violations. The company, in turn, sued USDA and challenged its authority require food safety plans and even won a court injunction stopping USDA from closing it down. Nebraska Beef and USDA later settled the case.

Three years later, Minnesota public health and USDA officials linked an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in ground beef that killed a Minnesota woman to Nebraska Beef, although USDA never publicly named the company as the source. The woman who died ate meatballs at a church event. Her family sued Nebraska Beef and the company, in turn, sued the church saying the volunteers who prepared the food were at fault.

Most recently, in 2007, Nebraska Beef sued USDA again, saying its inspectors had unfairly targeted it. The suit was later dismissed.

I'll let you know what happens next because I have a feeling this is not the end of the story.

By Annys Shin |  July 5, 2008; 4:39 PM ET Annys Shin
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Joe Tanory

Posted by: | July 6, 2008 6:57 AM

I guess you will get sued by Nebraska Beef for writing this article. How dare you criticizing this company?

Hopefully nobody will translate all the articles about the legal and court limited role of USDA inspections of US beef packers into Korean ... as this might validate and fuel the fears of Korean consumers who are forced to accept American beef imports...

Vivifiant, Ohio

Posted by: vivifiant | July 6, 2008 7:48 AM

Good job! Keep the reports coming.

Posted by: Joseph Palermo, St. Louis, MO. | July 6, 2008 8:06 AM

In the past a consumer's only recourse would be to stop buying the product in question (ie. beef, tomatoes, etc). But with the way our food is now processed we will never know where our food is coming from. And the Nebraska Beef's are protected by the system meant to keep us safe.

Why do we seem to have an reasonable system for notifying us of consumer products that are faulty (car, baby items, etc) but not for food?

Posted by: brux | July 6, 2008 8:55 AM

A couple of years ago, the Post wrote a front-page story about family farmers and ranchers who raise South Dakota Certified Beef (R), the first state of origin beef product that proves the meat is born, raised, fed and processed in South Dakota. Check out the website at

Posted by: Mark Johnston | July 6, 2008 9:19 AM

That is so crazy! If consumers are trusting the USDA to regulate the sale of foods we eat, then they should certainly be allowed to do so. This only makes me happier to know that I buy local and can see exactly where my meat is coming from.

Posted by: Momma5 | July 6, 2008 9:52 AM

Where are the federal inspectors on these beef recalls? They seem to only find the problems after the product hits the consumer. Do they not inspect at the plants? Who holds these inspectors responsible? It's a shame because 5.3 million pounds of beef equate to a bunch of wasted cows and feedstock. I have about lost all faith in government inspectors.

Posted by: spike | July 6, 2008 10:05 AM

First of all, it is best to buy your meat at small local meat markets and to ask where they buy from. The local stores are more likely to care about you as a customer and as a person and will actually care about your health because they want you to come back.

Second, these plants are NOT inspected. One of the past administrations decided that the big plants could police themselves and pulled all of the inspectors. The best way to end up with safer meat and to prevent this is to push the government to fight to make the USDA stronger and to give it real power.

Posted by: Paul | July 6, 2008 10:20 AM

The Bush administration cut inspectors...accourding to CBS:

"That's not all that's dropping at the FDA in terms of food safety. The analysis also shows:

There are 12 percent fewer FDA employees in field offices who concentrate on food issues.

Safety tests for U.S.-produced food have dropped nearly 75 percent, from 9,748 in 2003 to 2,455 last year, according to the agency's own statistics.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the FDA, at the urging of Congress, increased the number of food inspectors and inspections amid fears that the nation's food system was vulnerable to terrorists. Inspectors and inspections spiked in 2003, but now both have fallen enough to erase the gains."

Posted by: souix | July 6, 2008 10:49 AM

For too long our country has allowed the wants of big business to overpower the needs of its citizens. Industrial food is out of control and continues to help make us a less healthy nation. Read "The Omnivore's Dilema" by Michael Pollan to learn more.

Posted by: Concerned in Omaha | July 6, 2008 11:17 AM

The Nebraska Hiway Department has discontinued picking up road kill deer and other animals, they say they don't have enough money even though Nebraska has one of the highest fuel taxes in the nation. Now you know why Nebraska vultures are fat and Nebraska stinks. Maybe Nebraska Beef has taken over the job.

Posted by: Old Coot | July 6, 2008 11:25 AM

This is why it's important to cook ground beef throughly. I've always assumed ground beef could be contaminated. Better safe than sorry. :/

Posted by: citi | July 6, 2008 12:01 PM

Most everyone owns a car. If you choose to drive at high speeds or don't wear your seat belt you may kill yourself. Most everyone eats ground beef. If you choose to undercook it you may get sick.
I personally don't think I need the government in my kitchen making sure I cook my food properly.

Posted by: common sense | July 6, 2008 12:02 PM

How can "we the public" protect ourselves from those who would put money and profit before the safety of the consumer. What options do we have when we are forced to buy food to survive.?
Who tracks these "recalled" products to insure they do not get back into food supply via the back door.?

What company can take a 5.3 million pound loss at $3.50 a pound and still stay in business.? You do the math.

Posted by: Doug, DnA | July 6, 2008 12:04 PM

I know a guy who used to work in a meat packing plant and they've been feeding us a lot of BULL$#|+!

Posted by: seobro | July 6, 2008 12:07 PM

All we have to do is cook our food. stop recalling food that causes one freaking person to get sick because they didn't know how to cook a f'n meatball! $#!^ Americans are a bunch of whinning cry babies.

Posted by: Cook your food | July 6, 2008 12:24 PM

Protect yourself by cooking your ground beef to 160 degrees F.
E.Coli dies at 160 degrees F.

Posted by: common sense | July 6, 2008 12:37 PM

@Cook your food: Next time read the article instead of just the comments.

"...after it was linked to an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in Ohio and Michigan..."
"...determined that there is an association between the ground beef products and 35 illnesses reported in Michigan (17) and Ohio (18)."

Posted by: Think before you speak | July 6, 2008 12:43 PM

I completely agree that this is just a matter of cooking the food correctly. How many people die of faulty seat belts or bad brakes on a car every year without anything resembling an attempt at a recall?

Cooking at temperatures anywhere above 150 degrees for more than 5 minutes will kill anything from E coli., salmonella or even the freaking H.I.V. virus.

My question is what actually happens to this beef when it is recalled? Is it thrown in the dumpster in the alley, buried in the desert, thrown in the sea or fed back to the cows?

My guess is that it goes somewhere. Somewhere where someone else eats it without being aware of the U.S. recall. Somewhere controlled by the U.S. but with a premium placed on beef because of limited agricultural opportunities of its own. Think...Puerto Rico.

Posted by: Arden-Hanna | July 6, 2008 12:51 PM

SPIKE: read the article... the inspectors are doing their jobs, the courts are not. seriously, how often does the Bush administration need to fail the American people before someone finally gets the courage to challenge them?? it seems that President Bush has engaged the American government in three different wars: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the war against the American citizen. Remember that when you go vote at the polls this November, and remember who's in Congress--it's time to clean the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives.

Posted by: sf | July 6, 2008 12:58 PM


Posted by: | July 6, 2008 1:12 PM

First I agree that cooking the food to a temperature that kills everything would help reduce the incidents. But lets be serious here, are you telling me that because there are carcinogens in the air and that drinking my water may in fact kill me that what i should really do in wear a nuclear fallout suit and test everything I am thinking of consuming, and that I should also cook everything I buy to 160 Degrees or even better microwave everything i puchase just in case. As you can see we can go to extremes, I think that we should expect the things we buy as consumers to be clear of any defects be that e.coli in food or lead paint on the toys we buy for our children. I think we should also expect that the goverment do these inspections for us as I know for myself I do not have the funds to pay for a lab to check and process every item that i buy.
I also agree that i do not want the goverment telling me what to do in my own home or with my life, but i do expect the goverment to look after the big stuff so that i can take care of the small stuff.

Posted by: JG | July 6, 2008 2:19 PM

If you want safe ground beef then why not irradiation? It is proven safe and effective.
Add all the people and steps some of you want because you can't manage to cook your ground beef to 160 degrees F. will add cost to the product. Many are already struggling with food cost where is the sense in this?
Personal responsibility is the key here not government. Try to remember we as the taxpayer are going to have to pay for all these extra people and programs, aren't we in enough debt?
Just cook the ground beef- we aren't talking roasts and steaks here- to the proper temp or irradiate it.

Posted by: common sense | July 6, 2008 2:53 PM

Don't worry about Nebraska Beef. They are a LLC company (limited liability company), the owners will lose little of there own money, the company will go bankrupt, reorganize and be back in your supermarket in no time. The people they made sick will be left holding the bag.

Posted by: Old Coot | July 6, 2008 4:36 PM

As far as the USDA inspection program and large meat plants - the level of inspection was lowered if the plant had and followed a HACCP program. Apparently Nebraska Beef had a better legal program than a HACCP program.

As for those who want to buy local because they know where their meat comes from or "can see where it comes from". Do you go into the plants to observe, inspect, or look over their shoulder? I wouldn't want you wandering around in a plant that cuts and packs meat for me....

I inspect meat plants for my company, and from what I have experienced over the years, most are compliant and very concerned about pathogens and bacteria. That being said, it is important to COOK meat, particulary ground products (beef, chicken, whatever). And, make sure one WASHES THEIR HANDS after handling the meat. There are numerous times where a person cooked the beef correctly, but either put the cooked beef on the same plate that they had the raw beef on or picked up plates, silverware, other food without washing their hands and transferred the bacteria from the meat to the other items.

Posted by: Olwatzhisname | July 6, 2008 5:25 PM

Thanks for following this so closely. Good reporting. And we probably haven't heard the last of it, as you say.

Posted by: Dave | July 6, 2008 5:45 PM

do not eat meat, problem solved

Posted by: bhagwan_ca | July 6, 2008 5:46 PM

bhagwan_ca says "do not eat meat, problem solved"..... I second that! and only add: Go VEGAN!

Posted by: Bea Elliott | July 6, 2008 7:02 PM

One additional note - the recalled beef is made inedible, either by food coloring it to a horrible color, incinerated, or landfilled under the observation of the health department. So no, it isn't sent off to someone else to eat...

Posted by: Olwatzhisname | July 6, 2008 8:50 PM

First, it would be great for people to see the inside of a packing plant. They could see just how people operate these plants and might just see that their health is not being taken into consideration, just their pocketbook.

Also, I don't believe that this plant had a system that was better than HACCP. Federal guidelines are that a plant be shut down and completely cleaned every 8 hours. This recalled meat is over a month's worth of production. Most likely this plant was kept going because no one used common sense or just cared too much about the bottom line to clean up.

Everyone needs to understand where the E-coli comes from. E-coli lives in the intestines and is released when workers carelessly spill a cow's gut when splitting the cow into sides. This cause feces to get on the meat of the cow and is not properly washed off. What happens is that the meat is then ground and bits of feces are ground into the meat and that is what makes you sick. I am sorry, but just cooking the meat to a proper temperature does not excuse the fact that such unsanitary methods are used.

Posted by: Paul | July 7, 2008 1:02 AM


My comment on a legal vs. a HACCP program was a comment on Nebraska Beef's tendency to address food safety issues with lawyers rather than sanitation, based on their past reaction to food contamination issues at their plant.

I believe 9CFR part 416 calls for a plant to be cleaned and sanitized as "frequently as necessary" to prevent the creation of insanitary conditions, etc. etc. I agree that the plant probably should have been cleaned more often than it has been, and that the cleaning is inadequate to address the issues. having never been there, I can't say much about their sanitaition procedures.

The use of the meat left unpackaged after production is finished for the day and used in the next day's production (rework) is also a prime source for problems. If there is never a total break in the use of rework, the problem is just carried over for days, weeks, and even two month's worth of production. That is probably why two month's worth of production is implicated. A good plant will use up everything and not carry over product to the next day's production, even if it means paying overtime to get everything made & packaged.

E. coli source - right about that, as well as improper cleaning of the outside of the cattle prior to butchering.

Posted by: Olwatzhisname | July 7, 2008 10:28 AM

Paul: "when workers carelessly spill a cow's gut" - I'm so out of here.... inhumane and gross! Just awful what's done for deadly meat - Go Vegan

Posted by: Bea Elliott | July 7, 2008 9:55 PM

Read "The China Study" and then decide for yourself what you wish to feed yourself and your loved ones. The study explores in depth the relationships between diet and diseases. A must read.

Posted by: kb | July 10, 2008 4:32 PM

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