NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — In the months before issuing a massive recall of its frozen hamburgers, Topps Meat Co. curtailed testing of ground beef and skipped other safeguards aimed at preventing contaminated meat from reaching consumers, according to a report published Tuesday.
Three batches of frozen patties tainted with a potentially fatal bacteria left the company's plant in Elizabeth, N.J., according to unnamed federal regulators cited by The New York Times.
To date, 40 people in eight states were sickened with E. coli infections linked to the Topps burgers.
The United States Department of Agriculture had no immediate comment Tuesday on the report.
Messages left for Topps officials were not immediately returned.
Topps recalled 21.7 million pounds of its patties in late September — the second-largest U.S. beef recall — and then closed its business.
The recall represented a year's worth of production for the company, which considered itself the nation's largest producer of frozen hamburgers, but much of the meat had already been eaten.
The Topps recall, and a subsequent recall of 840,000 pounds of frozen patties produced by Cargill Inc. at a plant in Butler, Wis., were linked to a handful of illnesses and renewed questions about the USDA's regulation system, which leaves many safety decisions to producers.
Topps was not a slaughterhouse; it took in cut beef and ground it. Many meatpackers like Topps test their finished product, such as frozen or raw hamburger, but that is not required, according to the American Meat Institute, a trade group.
Slaughterhouses are not required to test carcasses for pathogens, and if they do, they are not required to hold onto the meat until they get results, the AMI said.
The recent outbreaks reversed a steady decline of E. coli in ground beef that began in 2000, but the government and industry are not certain whether that signals a trend or was due to random events.
The O157:H7 strain of E. coli bacteria, which can be fatal to humans, is harbored in the intestines of cattle and also can get on their hides. Improper butchering and processing can cause the E. coli to get onto meat. Thorough cooking, to at least 160 degrees internal temperature, can destroy the bacteria.