Experts say the process, known as "reworking" refrigerated meat, is safe. But it's one more way E. coli bacteria that sickened about 16 people in Colorado this month could have spread through several batches of meat.
The entire meat industry has been rattled by Hudson Foods Inc.'s recall of 25 million pounds of ground beef _ the nation's largest meat recall in history.
Virtually every meatpacker, Hudson included, reworks their supplies, said Rosemary Mucklow, executive director of the National Meat Association, a trade group. Typically, ground beef that hasn't been processed at the end of one day's production run is covered, labeled and refrigerated. The next day, it's added to the fresh supply for processing.
U.S. regulators have no set policy against the process. "As long as the meat is wholesome, the procedure is safe," said Mucklow.
But on Monday, Mucklow's group sent a letter to its 600 members, including meatpackers, processors and equipment suppliers, recommending that they no longer mix in the leftover meat.
"We are recommending an absolute break in continuity" between one day's production and the next, Mucklow said.
The Agriculture Department and Hudson Foods believe the E. coli bacteria in Hudson's beef patties most likely came from one of several slaughterhouses the company uses. The bacteria contaminated frozen beef patties made at Hudson's Columbus, Neb., plant June 5.
Because the beef had been reworked, no one could prove that meat processed on the ensuing days was not tainted as well.
The scare cost Hudson Foods one of its major customers, as Burger King said it would no longer buy its beef from Hudson. It also spooked the entire industry, said Janet Riley, spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute.
"Everyone was shocked by the magnitude of what happened to Hudson," Riley said. "It's particularly frustrating because, even in the most perfect plant, there's no way to guarantee a perfect product."
Several meatpacking companies contacted Tuesday would not confirm plans to change their reworking practices. But Michael Johnson, a microbiologist at the University of Arkansas who has consulted with Hudson Foods, said meatpackers are likely to act before the government requires them to.
"It's in their best interests as businesses to adopt even stricter measures than the government requires," Johnson said. "They need to regain the confidence of the companies they supply."
Experts note the production plant is only one of several points of entry
for bacteria. Johnson said scientists are developing animal vaccines and
pasteurization techniques, and restaurants have improved their food-
safety procedures, testing meat by temperature rather than by color to
ensure it's cooked through.