KANSAS CITY, Mo - The latest discovery of E.coli bacteria in beef from Nebraska has raised questions of how the deadly bacteria could have been found in beef from three separate plants in the state in just over a month.
The latest reports of tainted beef follow action by Hudson Foods Inc last month to recall 25 million pounds of frozen ground beef, the largest meat recall in U.S. history. The beef was produced at a Hudson plant in Columbus, Nebraska.
"These are federally inspected plants, as was Hudson and as were the plants that supplied the raw materials. If the reports are correct it might beg the question whether there is a problem with federal inspection," said Pat Ptacek, assistant director of the Nebraska State Department of Agriculture.
"Nebraska is under the microscope after Hudson Foods. We take any problem very seriously. Even the mention of the word (E.coli) has a very negative impact," he said.
Nebraska slaughters about one fifth of all cattle in the United States on a weight basis, according to Nebraska Agriculture Statistics, which does not keep data on the amount of ground beef produced in the state.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said on Sunday a supermarket in Virginia had recalled 40 to 60 pounds of ground beef sold in early September after discovering an E.coli strain in the meat purchased from Beef America Co.
USDA has sent an official to investigate Beef America's processing plant in Norfolk, Neb., where the tainted beef originated. Beef America officials were not available for comment on Monday.
In a separate incident, South Korea announced Friday it had detected E.coli in a shipment of 18 tons of frozen beef shipped from IBP Inc's plant in Dakota City, Nebraska.
IBP said it had sent a senior company meat scientist to South Korea to help in any investigation, but had not yet been contacted about the contamination by the South Korean government or the U.S. Agriculture Department.
Some officials also were downplaying the findings.
Nebraska state epidemiologist Thomas Safranek said detection of the bacteria could be looked at as a simple matter of probability and statistics.
"The thing people don't realize is that this happens pretty frequently. There's E.coli -- not necessarily the deadly strain -- in about 84% of the beef on the shelves, according to a USDA study in 1995," he said.
E.coli bacteria are normally killed by thorough cooking at temperatures of at least 160 degress Fahrenheit.
Safranek stressed that hamburger beef processed in Nebraska did not necessarily originate in the state, but rather was from areas across the country.
"I investigated one outbreak of E.coli in Nebraska a few years ago and the plant that was affected took supplies from Kansas, Texas and Nebraska...so you can't by any means draw the conclusion that this beef originated in Nebraska," he said.
E.coli lives naturally in the intestines of cattle and, if not handled properly, can infect beef during production and processing or at any later stage of handling.
It can sometimes cause fatal food poisoning, bloody diarrhea and dehydration, although it is generally destroyed if food is cooked thoroughly.
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