In an article titled, "The Feds are Still Looking for the E. coli," writer Michael Scherer discusses two recent E. coli outbreaks – one in Pennsylvania and one in California.  In Scherer’s article, he focuses on USDA’s attempts to find the source of an E. coli outbreak, and its inability, or unwillingness, search beyond a final meat processor to a supplier or slaughterhouse "upstream".

E. coliThe two separate E. coli outbreaks subsequently demonstrated both the strengths and ongoing weaknesses of the troubled federal food safety system, which has been under recent scrutiny because rising rates of E. coli sickness. Within weeks, nationwide recalls were announced for nearly 400,000 pounds of meat, and two local meat-processing facilities were temporarily shuttered. But federal food safety inspectors have not yet been able to track down the original slaughterhouses that probably caused the outbreak, leaving open the possibility that more contaminated food is still in the food system. Meanwhile, smaller meat-processing firms that are probably blameless bear the financial brunt of the recalls.

Scherer interviewed Bill Marler and John Munsell, both key players in the ConAgra E. coli outbreak in 2002, about USDA’s traceback abilities. 

The current problems can be traced to USDA regulations first put into place in 1994. Under those rules, small meat processors who mechanically tenderize or grind USDA-approved beef from outside slaughterhouses became legally responsible for any "adulterants" like E. coli in the final product. "Whoever grinds it gets stuck with the problem," explains Bill Marler, a Seattle trial lawyer who specializes in food poisoning cases. "If the product has E. coli on it, they are on the hook. It is an unfair situation."

The rules have resulted in inspectors who have historically shown little interest in finding the source of the contamination, with sometimes disastrous results. In 2002, E. coli-contaminated beef from a ConAgra slaughterhouse in Greeley, Colo., sickened 46 people in 16 states and killed a woman in Ohio. But months before most of the illnesses became apparent, two small meat processors, including a plant run by Munsell, received positive tests for E. coli from boxed beef that had been sent from the Greeley plant. Federal meat inspectors blamed the processing plants and initially refused to trace the contamination back to its source. "Existing policy stated that the grinders should be held accountable for ensuring the product that they purchased was wholesome," explained the USDA’s inspector general in a damning report about the incident. "FSIS was slow to react."

Marler has commented on USDA’s recall abilities and its partnership with the meat industry several times, including his essay titled, "E. coli and the Church Picnic," which is posted at his blog, and an Associated Press article titled, "USDA withheld information from state in E. coli investigation," an excerpt of which is also poted at marler’s blog.