Topps Meat Recall Delayed for Weeks by USDA, Despite Test that Confirmed E. Coli Contamination in Frozen Hamburgers

Questions have arisen regarding the timing of the <"">Topps Meat Company frozen ground beef recall. According to published reports, tests confirmed the presence of E. coli bacteria in a package of Topps frozen hamburgers as early as September 7. Yet, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) did not issue a recall order for Topps ground beef until September 25. Now, the USDA faces criticism over its slow response to the Topps E. coli outbreak, and the situation will likely do little to ease fears that the food safety system in the United States is badly broken.

Despite the fact that it is responsible for overseeing the safety of the US meat supply, the USDA was not the first governmental agency to alert consumers to the danger posed by E. coli contaminated Topps ground beef. Rather, it was the New York Department of Health that first published a safety alert on September 25 regarding Topps frozen meat. New York officials had been investigating 6 cases of E. coli poisoning in that state, and had confirmed the presence of E. coli in a package of Topps frozen hamburgers a day before it issued its alert. While the USDA did issue the Topps Meat Company recall a few hours later, it had tests that confirmed E. coli in some Topps meat weeks earlier.

The first case of E. coli poisoning linked to Topps ground beef was reported on July 5. At that time the USDA was unable to trace that illness to a definitive source. But by September 7, state investigators in Florida had linked a girl’s E. coli poisoning to a package of frozen patties found in her family’s freezer. Florida health officials forwarded that information to the USDA. But one case of E. coli poisoning tied to Topps meat was apparently not enough evidence for the USDA to issue a recall notice.

The USDA finally did recall Topps meat on September 25, following a meeting of its recall committee. At that time, more than 300,000 pounds of Topps frozen beef products were recalled. But the USDA recall notice mentioned nothing about the Florida E. coli incident. Rather, the USDA said that three cases in New York State tied to the frozen ground beef had sparked the recall

Despite the September 25 announcement, the recall wasn’t over yet. A few days later, Topps recalled another 21.7 million pounds of tainted meat – making the Topps recall the third largest meat recall in US history. The recall was expanded after USDA inspectors checking on the Topps Meat Company plant in New Jersey discovered safety violations. Though it won’t say what those violations were, the USDA did order Topps to suspend meat grinding operations at the facility until the company formulates a plan of corrective action. What is especially alarming about the safety violations found at the Topps Meat Company plant is that a USDA inspector had been present at the factory prior to the recall.

Since the Topps frozen ground beef recall was announced, health officials in 8 states have linked 28 E. coli cases to the tainted meat. The latest victim reported becoming ill on September 11. Now some are asking if any victims of this E. coli outbreak could have been spared if the USDA had warned consumers about the dangers posed by Topps Meat Company hamburger patties when they were first linked to E. coli in Florida.

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