090211 Nebraska Beef Sues Colorado Firm Over Recalled Beef

February 3, 2009

Omaha, NE (AP) -- Nebraska Beef Ltd. is suing a Colorado company to settle a dispute over the liability for beef that was recalled last summer and the cost of the cattle involved.

The Omaha-based processor recalled nearly 7 million pounds of beef in two separate recalls after its products were linked to at least 76 cases of E. coli illnesses.

At least some of the recalled meat came from cattle that Loveland, Colo.- based Meyer Natural Foods LLC bought and sent to Nebraska Beef's plant for processing from May 2008 through July 2008.

Meyer Natural Foods President Al Byers declined to comment on the lawsuit. Byers' company includes the Meyer Natural Angus division that produces beef from humanely treated cattle that ate a vegetarian diet and never received antibiotics.

Privately held Nebraska Beef filed the federal lawsuit Friday against Meyer, seeking more than $75,000 damages.

"Right now, it's just a dispute on expenses between companies," Nebraska Beef attorney Bill Lamson said.

The lawsuit raises the question of which company should be held liable for the tainted meat.

Legal claims related to the recalled beef have been made against Meyer, according to the lawsuit, and Meyer wanted Nebraska Beef to indemnify Meyer against any liability for the tainted meat.

But Nebraska Beef denies the contamination originated at its processing plant and says it did not breach the terms of its contract with Meyer. So Nebraska Beef wants the court to declare that it's not obligated to indemnify Meyer.

Most of the meat Nebraska Beef recalled last year was shipped to companies that planned to further process the meat. That makes it difficult to determine exactly where the meat became contaminated with E. coli bacteria even though USDA investigators determined Nebraska Beef's practices couldn't effectively control E. coli bacteria on June 24.

Later, federal officials said they were satisfied the company was operating safely.

At least four lawsuits were filed against Nebraska Beef last year after the recalls, including three in Georgia and one in Ohio. Atlanta attorney Alan Maxwell represents the company in those cases, which are all in the midst of pretrial motions and discovery. Maxwell said Meyer has not been named in any of those lawsuits.

Nebraska Beef slaughters about 2,000 head of cattle a day and employs about 800 people in Omaha.

The recalls at issue in this lawsuit relate only to products made by the company Nebraska Beef Ltd. and not all beef produced in the state of Nebraska.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the E. coli 0157:H7 variant sickens about 73,000 people and kills 61 each year in the United States. Most of those who die have weak immune systems, such as the elderly or very young.

Symptoms of E. coli infection include stomach cramps and diarrhea that may turn bloody within three days.

Cooking ground beef to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees should kill E. coli bacteria, if they are present. The USDA recommends that people use meat thermometers to verify they have cooked meat thoroughly.