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ConAgra Stymied Us, California says

DAVID MIGOYA / Denver Post 31dec02

E-mails indicate firm didn't help find bad beef

Tuesday, December 31, 2002 - ConAgra officials rebuffed repeated efforts this summer by California health investigators to locate E. coli-tainted meat suspected of making people sick, recently released documents show. But a spokesman for the Greeley slaughterhouse, now known as Swift & Co., said Monday that it was California that goofed by not returning the company's telephone calls offering help.

The problem occurred during one of the nation's largest meat recalls ever and in the face of public promises by ConAgra to tell health departments nationwide where it shipped nearly 19 million pounds of beef that later was recalled, say nearly 300 pages of health department e-mails obtained by The Denver Post through California's open-records laws.

California Department of Health Services officials said in the internal e-mails that ConAgra's refusal to disclose where it distributed nearly 50 tons of recalled beef in the state "may further endanger California consumers."

"This blatant disregard for a request from a public health agency is unacceptable and may have jeopardized the health of (California) citizens," Jim Waddell, acting chief of the agency's food and drug branch, wrote health services director Richard Rodriguez on Sept. 10, eight weeks after the state's initial request.

Consumer safety groups say the problem raises new concerns about the recall system and how firms decide whether information is kept from the public and health investigators.

California had four illnesses linked to the recalled meat. ConAgra provided its confidential customer list to Colorado and other states.

The e-mails detail nearly three months of frustrated efforts by California to obtain ConAgra's distribution list - how calls to the company sometimes were not returned, letters went unanswered and voice-mails were ignored.

Waddell said Monday that California still has not received the list. In addition to determining whether recalled meat may have caused illnesses, officials would have used the information to ensure grocers had pulled the beef from store shelves.

Swift spokesman Jim Herlihy said ConAgra's consultant, Melvin Kramer, told him he twice - on Aug. 23 and Aug. 28 - left telephone messages with California health officials with the intention of giving them the list.

California officials said they are unaware of any messages from ConAgra.

"We've been prepared to give them the information about the expanded recall all along," Herlihy said. "We will be doing that shortly."

California records show only that Kramer faxed a request to health officials there on Aug. 29 for information about E. coli-related illnesses the state was tracking.

"I find this request and the timing of it particularly interesting in light of the firm's steadfast refusal to cooperate with our investigation," Dr. Jeff Farrar of the California health agency's emergency response unit wrote to Waddell in an e-mail about Kramer's fax.

The e-mails show ConAgra provided the name of a single distributor in Southern California to Los Angeles County health officials shortly after it recalled about 354,000 pounds of E. coli-contaminated meat June 30. But state officials never got similar information from the company, even after the recall was expanded on July 19 to nearly 19 million pounds of beef.

The meat was blamed for 47 illnesses in 23 states - 17 in Colorado - and one death in Ohio.

"If true, this is unbelievable and inexcusable conduct by ConAgra," said U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who has demanded answers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture about how it handled the recall.

California's assertion that ConAgra wouldn't help the state track down tainted meat would mean the company "put their corporate interest over the safety of their customers," said Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House government reform committee.

Following public pressure, ConAgra in mid-August said it would voluntarily provide its distribution list to states with confirmed E. coli cases. The USDA couldn't make public the company's customer list because it is considered a protected business secret.

Farrar first asked for ConAgra's customer list on July 18, a day before the expanded recall, but a company official refused the request, the e-mails show.

Consumer groups want an overhaul of the USDA's recall system.

"I fear that recalls are moving into the direction of more secrecy," said Carol Tucker Foreman of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America.

Firms such as Swift voluntarily recall meat and are not required to publicly disclose the names of businesses that got the meat. Under a law that went into effect Aug. 1, the USDA will provide the distribution lists to those states with open-records laws that ensure the lists are not made public.

Disclosure under the USDA's new rule doesn't include a wholesaler's customers, who purchase meat and resell it. That means that unless a company volunteers the information, consumers and health officials still have no idea whether meat in a home freezer may be subject to a recall since ground beef often is mixed and repacked several times under different names before it is purchased.

"Once (meat) is implicated in a recall and there is a public health risk, companies should forfeit the privacy of their customer information," said Foreman, the USDA's food safety director under Presidents Carter and Reagan.

David Migoya can be reached at dmigoya@denverpost.com or 303-820-1506

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