NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — An e-mail from a federal inspector confirms the U.S. Department of Agriculture knew that millions of frozen hamburger patties could be contaminated with E. coli in early September but waited 18 days before concluding Topps Meat Co. should issue a recall, a lawyer for a teen sickened by the beef said yesterday.
The recall came Sept. 25, and was soon expanded to comprise 21.7 million pounds of hamburger produced by Elizabeth-based Topps, the second-largest beef recall in U.S. history.
The Florida teen was hospitalized with kidney failure in August and the meat her family bought was tested by the USDA.
The tests confirmed on Sept. 7 that the Topps patties had the E coli bacteria strain O157:H7, according to an e-mail from Kis Robertson, an employee of the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service.
The e-mail was provided by the teen’s family lawyer, Scott P. Schlesinger yesterday to the Associated Press.
The USDA e-mail was reported Wednesday by the Chicago Tribune.
“They should have recalled immediately. That’s not even a maybe,” Mr. Schlesinger said.
USDA spokeswoman Amanda Eamich said yesterday she had no immediate comment.
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.
As of noon Wednesday, 29 persons in eight states had E. coli infections matching the strain found in the Topps patties, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. None has died.
The first illness began July 5, and the last began Sept. 11, the CDC said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working to find the source of the E. coli strain, which stems from the intestines of healthy cattle.
The CDC reported these states and number of cases: Connecticut (2), Florida (1), Indiana (1), Maine (1), New Jersey (6), New York (9), Ohio (1), and Pennsylvania (8).
Privately held Topps, which is thought 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.
Topps gets beef parts from slaughterhouses, grinds them, forms the meat into patties and freezes them.
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.
A full list of the recalled products is available at www.toppsmeat.com.
The company has said it thinks much of the recalled meat has already been eaten. Thorough cooking, to at least 160 degrees, can destroy the bacteria.