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FORT MORGAN, COLO.
Amid the cattle carcasses zipping down the disassembly line and the herd of workers wielding the sharpest of knives, there's a war going on each day at Cargill Inc.'s sprawling beef plant on the northeastern Colorado plains.
It's a fight against E. coli, potentially lethal bacteria behind several big disease outbreaks and food recalls in recent years. It's fought with technology, lab testing and a phalanx of safety inspectors, and it may soon involve a pioneering vaccine that cuts E. coli risks before cattle even arrive at the slaughterhouse.
Cargill's -- and for that matter the meat industry's -- ultimate goal: Never repeat the experience of Stephanie Smith.
She is the young Cold Spring, Minn., dance instructor who lost the use of her legs, bowel and bladder in 2007 after eating a Cargill-made hamburger tainted with E. coli O157:H7. The highly publicized Smith case highlighted the human consequences of even one safety slip-up.
Big food recalls and disease outbreaks can also cost a company tens of millions of dollars while tainting a firm's reputation. It's a critical issue for Cargill, a global food colossus that is based in Minnetonka.
A recent survey conducted for National Public Radio found that 61 percent of Americans were worried about contamination of their food supply, with meat the top concern.
"I've interacted with people who've had foodborne illnesses, and it is a terrible and painful thing for them and their families," said Nicole Johnson-Hoffman, general manager of Cargill's Fort Morgan plant and a lawyer who worked on the Smith case. "We need to keep these people in mind when we do our job."
Yet for all the effort to contain E. coli, the fight seems to get only tougher, as evidenced by a recall two weeks ago from a Cargill meat plant in Pennsylvania. It was a relatively minor one as recalls go. But it involved a strain of E. coli -- O26 -- that had not previously been associated with meat that got people sick.
A menace emerges
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 73,000 people get sick each year from E. coli O157:H7. The transmission of the bacteria to people is simple: through feces. With one mistake at the slaughterhouse, a microbial piece of cattle dung can make its way onto an animal's carcass and into a finished beef product -- though proper cooking will kill it.
E. coli O157:H7 surfaced as a major public health issue in 1993, when an outbreak linked to Jack in the Box restaurants killed four children and sickened hundreds of people.
"It was the meat industry's 9/11," said Bill Marler, a Seattle food safety attorney who has represented Smith and other foodborne illness victims in suits against Cargill. "It really galvanized the industry to pay attention to O157."
Over the ensuing years, Cargill and other companies have implemented all sorts of processes to reduce E. coli risks, and they're on display at the Fort Morgan plant.
One of them: the "hide-on-carcass wash." Immediately after cattle are killed but before the hides are stripped, the animals are washed with soap by a brush like in a car wash, an attempt to scour away any fecal material.
Removing the hide is a critical point: It's here where errant E. coli bacteria can make the jump from pelt to future hamburger. Once the hide's off, the carcass is washed in lactic acid, which kills bad microbes. After it's eviscerated and split in two, it gets another anti-microbial bath, this one in a bromine solution. Then comes "steam pasteurization," a blast of 190-degree heat, again aimed at killing bad bugs.
The entire butchering process is watched constantly: Cameras throughout the plant feed live video to a little room manned on a recent day by Barb Greenwood, a quality control monitor. If she sees a problem, she gets on the radio and her Palm Pilot and notifies the proper foreman.
On this morning, she spotted a "hock cutter," which removes an animal's rear hoof, leaking food-grade vegetable oil. Within minutes the problem was solved, and any part of the carcass that could have been exposed to the oil was tossed out.
As at all commercial slaughterhouses, inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture are on the watch at Fort Morgan. There are 14 of them on the floor per shift, often at critical safety points. Near the evisceration station, for example, an inspector scrutinizes stomachs, hearts and other organs for any indication of an unhealthy animal.
Evisceration is a particularly challenging meat-processing job, and workers who do it for Cargill in Fort Morgan get paid $3 more per hour --$15.70 -- than the plant's base production wage.
With a razor-sharp blade and ample muscle, they cut out cattle innards in one swoop, making sure not to nick any organs and possibly contaminate a carcass. They process each animal in 30 to 40 seconds; Cargill says it keeps its chain speed at a "happy medium."
But line speed in any slaughterhouse creates "a healthy tension," said Jeffrey Bender, director of the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety at the University of Minnesota.
Go too slow, and profit margins get squeezed; too fast, and safety can be compromised. "As line speed increases, and worker fatigue sets in -- particularly with repetitive motion -- the potential for mistakes is there," Bender said.
And beef-processing plants rely much more on manual labor than many other factories. Most of the cuts required to disassemble an animal simply can't be done by machine. Cargill's Fort Morgan operation employs 2,000, with lines of white-smocked workers making thousands of knife cuts a day amid the din of the plant's massive refrigeration units.
Big hopes for vaccine
As one of the nation's four big beef packers, who together control about 80 percent of the industry, Cargill has a lot at stake in finding new approaches to fight E. coli. The vaccine it has been experimenting with in Colorado is one of the more promising.
E. coli O157: H7 lives in the guts of ruminant animals like cattle. The vaccine is aimed at killing the bug while it's still in the animal.
Developed by Willmar-based Epitopix, the vaccine starves an E. coli O157:H7 cell of vital nutrients. In a peer-reviewed trial in 2007 by a Kansas State University researcher, the vaccine reduced the prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 in the feces of several hundred cattle by 86 percent.
Last November, Cargill launched the first commercial trial of the Epitopix vaccine, giving it to 85,000 cattle. At the Timmerman Feeding Corp.'s lot, where cattle fatten on corn-based feed about 90 miles northeast of Fort Morgan, a select group of cows received two shots of the vaccine.
The trial ended last month, and the vaccine produced the antibodies it was supposed to, though the analysis of the trial isn't complete.
"If everything works, [the vaccine] will be great for the industry," said Jason Timmerman of the feedlot firm. "The cost is the issue."
There are costs to administer the vaccine. Every time a cow gets a shot, it must be sequestered in a "squeeze chute." It takes a lot of labor to do that -- cattle aren't fond of being herded into a metal restraint, if only for a few minutes. When they get out, they're usually so riled they don't eat for a day, and eating is the whole point of a feedlot.
Each shot is estimated to cost about $2. Cargill's Fort Morgan plant processes 1.2 million head of cattle per year. If every one of those animals got two shots, the tab for that plant alone would be $4.8 million.
And the research trial that found an 86 percent reduction in E. coli O157:H7 used three shots, not two. "We felt two was very effective," said Dan Schaefer, Cargill's assistant vice president for beef research, noting that another peer-reviewed research trial showed good results with two shots.
James Sandstrom, Epitopix's general manager, said a three-shot trial is what eventually won over federal regulators to license the vaccine. But using just two shots still reduces E. coli O157:H7 prevalence in feces by 50 to 60 percent, he said.
Another hurdle for the vaccine: Who pays, the feedlot or the packer? "We haven't figured out the economic model yet," Schaefer said.
A wave of recalls
Over the past two years, the number of recalls due to E. coli contamination has declined, after skyrocketing in 2007. In that year, for reasons that aren't clear, the number of E. coli-related recalls jumped to 21, from just eight the year before, according to data from Marler, the attorney, based on federal statistics.
The damage was widespread in the meat industry. In October 2007, Cargill recalled about 845,000 pounds of hamburger patties made at its Butler, Wis., operation.
The recall was connected to an E. coli O157:57 outbreak in several states. Minnesota had 11 cases, four of which involved hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), the worst outcome of E. coli O157:H7 poisoning. Along with the usual fever, chills and diarrhea, HUS can involve kidney failure.
That's what happened to Smith, then age 20, who was in a coma for two months and hospitalized for six more. She sued Cargill for $100 million, plus medical costs, and the two sides settled in May. Terms weren't disclosed, but Cargill agreed to cover Smith's care for life. Her plight was featured in a New York Times investigation that won a Pulitzer Prize this year.
"The Stephanie Smith case was a tragic reminder of the criticality of what we do every day to protect people from foodborne illness," said Johnson-Hoffman, general manager of the Fort Morgan plant and a native of a Clear Lake, Minn.
The ground beef supply chain is particularly critical to meat safety, and not surprisingly most meat-related E. coli outbreaks stem from ground beef. By its nature, ground beef is potentially more of a safety hazard since it's made up of trimmings -- scraps of meat and fat -- from the carcasses of several cattle, not just one animal.
Plus, ground beef operations like Cargill's in Butler, Wis., get their meat from several sources. So, for all the precautions Cargill might take with its own slaughtering process, it can't be totally sure of its suppliers' procedures.
Cargill's safety requirements for its ground beef suppliers were criticized in the Times investigation, though the company said it has since made its standards more stringent.
The fight continues
For years, every lot of ground beef made at the Fort Morgan plant -- and every other Cargill operation -- has been tested for E. coli O157:H7 before it leaves the plant. Workers take 60 to 75 samples per 2,000-pound to 10,000-pound lot. The meat isn't shipped until it gets the all-clear, a process that takes about 18 hours.
But Cargill and the beef industry generally don't test for six rarer, but still toxic, strains of E. coli, which annually sicken thousands of people. Two weeks ago, one of those strains, E. coli O26, was associated with ground beef made at a Cargill plant in Pennsylvania.
Three people were sickened in the Northeast, though none was hospitalized, and Cargill voluntarily recalled 8,500 pounds of product. The company said in a statement that while E. coli O26 couldn't be conclusively linked to the meat, it couldn't be eliminated as a possible source either.
E. coli O157:H7 is easier to test for than E. coli O26 and the other five toxic strains because it has some "very unique" microbiological properties, said Angie Siemens, vice president of technical services for Cargill's meat division. Plus, there are currently no commercially feasible kits to test for the rarer E. coli types, she said, meaning test results wouldn't be available for several days.
Marler has petitioned the USDA to treat the six rarer E. coli strains as "adulterants," which he said would put them on a similar regulatory footing as E. coli O157:H7. The USDA has been working to develop a test and said in a statement that its policies "need to evolve" to encompass E. coli pathogens beyond O157.
Cargill's recent E. coli O26 recall is likely to intensify the debate over broader testing. It portends a whole new battleground in the E. coli fight.
Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003