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E.coli outbreak forces closure of meat plant

A meat packaging plant in Nebraska that is at the centre of one of America's largest food recalls was summarily shut down yesterday after inspectors found its safety practices to be defective. All its produce will be destroyed.

A recent outbreak of E.coli food poisoning - similar to the one that killed 20 people in Scotland last year - was traced to frozen hamburgers originating at the plant. Its owner, Hudson Foods Inc, is one of the biggest producers in the US and supplies the Burger King and Boston Market fast- food chains, as well as supermarkets.

The announcement was made yesterday afternoon by the US agriculture secretary, Dan Glickman. "Hudson will recall all product that originated at the Columbus, Nebraska plant, destroy all product it has on hand at that plant and immediately cease operations there until they have adopted far more stringent safety standards that we have specifically laid out for them," he said.

A team of Department of Agriculture inspectors had been working at the plant around the clock for three days in an attempt to establish the cause of the outbreak.

Mr Glickman said the inspectors had found that unused meat from one day was habitually held over for use in the next day's processing. It was therefore impossible to guarantee that the initial contamination had not found its way into further batches.

A week ago, Hudson recalled 40,000 tons of hamburgers after 17 cases of E-coli poisoning were reported in Colorado. Within two days, the amount of meat recalled was increased to more than 1m tons, a record for any recall of meat in the US.

The fact that the outbreak in Colorado was so limited is attributed by agriculture department officials to the effectiveness of precautions currently in force and Mr Glickman yesterday described US food as "the safest in the world". Other scientists familiar with the US food industry, however, say it is miraculous that it was not worse.