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Is The USDA Exposing People To Sickness By Waiting For Test Results?

The USDA has the policy of waiting to see a presumptive positive test result confirmed before seeking a recall. As a result, consumers may have gotten sick from tainted hamburger. The Associated Press reports:


The Agriculture Department defended an 18-day wait on recalling Topps beef patties and said it will re-evaluate its policy for future cases.

The Agriculture Department defended its decision to wait 18 days before seeking the recall of millions of pounds of ground beef after initial tests showed E. coli contamination, saying it was following standard policy to rule out other factors.

In a telephone interview Thursday with The Associated Press, department officials acknowledged that they knew as early as Sept. 7 that frozen hamburger patties could be contaminated after a federal inspector confirmed that preliminary tests indicated the E. coli bacteria strain O157:H7.

The department said it was following its common practice of confirming the original results. However, because of the delay in this case, Agriculture officials will now re-examine the policies to determine whether quicker notice is necessary.

“We are concerned about that delay and we recognize that we can do better,” said spokeswoman Terri Teuber. “One of the things we’re looking at for future recalls is to determine whether the science is strong enough in some cases that we should authoritatively move forward sooner.”

The department’s response comes after the AP obtained an Agriculture Department e-mail showing the department knew on Sept. 7 about possible contamination but waited 18 days before concluding Topps Meat should issue a recall.

The recall that began Sept. 25 was soon expanded to comprise 21.7 million pounds of hamburger produced by Elizabeth-based Topps, making it the second-largest beef recall in U.S. history.

A Florida teen, Samantha Safranek of Pembroke Pines, was hospitalized with kidney failure in August, and the meat her family bought was tested by the USDA.

Safranek’s mother bought a box of Topps frozen quarter pound patties from the Wal-Mart at 151 SW 184th St. in Pembroke Pines on Aug. 15. Samantha, who has since returned to school, ate one two days later and within days was hospitalized.

Her parents have sued Wal-Mart, which pulled the frozen patties from its shelves on Aug. 30, for negligence.

The e-mail — from a federal inspector employed by the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service — was provided by the teen’s family lawyer, Scott P. Schlesinger, on Thursday.

“They [Topps] should have recalled immediately. That’s not even a maybe,” Schlesinger said.

Asked about the delay, Topps spokeswoman Michele Williams referred questions to the USDA. “We’ve been fully cooperating with their investigation, and certainly taking their recommendations,” she said.

Teuber told the AP that the Sept. 7 preliminary results yielded 13 negative samples of the questionable ground beef and just one positive result.

Subsequently, USDA scientists conducted a more sophisticated test, known as the Pulsed Field Gel Electrophoresis, that took an additional seven days. After those results became available on Sept. 14, the department then investigated to determine whether the suspected meat could have been contaminated in the consumer’s home.

In general, home contamination is rare and the Agriculture Department is reviewing whether to bypass that test in the future, Teuber said.

“We have real concerns about the 11-day lapse from the 14th to 25th,” she said.

As of noon Wednesday, 29 people in eight states had E. coli infections matching the strain found in the Topps patties, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. None have died.

The first illness began July 5, and the last began on Sept. 11, the CDC said.

Privately held Topps, which is believed to be the leading U.S. maker of frozen hamburger patties, said it sells its products to supermarkets and institutions such as schools, hospitals, restaurants and hotels.

The recall represents all Topps hamburger products with either a “sell by date” or a “best if used by date” between Sept. 25 this year and Sept. 25, 2008. All recalled products also have a USDA establishment number of EST 9748, which is on the back panel of the package or in the USDA legend.

The 18-day wait is odd but, the issue — what are our moral obligations when we have a presumptive or preliminary positive on product that consumers could eat — wouldn’t change if the delay was one day or one-hundred days.

Suppose this story was telling us about a little girl who died because she was given a hamburger after the government had a presumptive or preliminary positive.

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