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US scraps 25m pounds of beef in food-bug scare

The United States food industry, which prides itself on being "the safest in the world", is facing demands for even stricter food hygiene standards following the recall of 25 million pounds of ground beef and the closure of a major meat packaging plant last week. The recall, ordered after an outbreak of E. coli food poisoning in Colorado, was the largest ever in the US, and has put the vast meat industry under the microscope.

Yesterday, many media reports claimed that the lax practices inspectors uncovered at the plant - a big packaging operation at Columbus, Nebraska, belonging to Arkansas-based food giant, Hudson Foods Inc - were widespread. One report said beef cows in Arkansas were regularly fed chicken waste that could contain faecal matter, a source of the E. coli bacteria. One rancher defended the practice as highly effective and economical, fuelling the suspicions of those who question the intensive methods of much US agriculture.

The government has been accused of over-reacting in summarily shutting down the Nebraska plant. The E. coli outbreak appears to have been relatively minor, with only 17 reported cases and no fatalities. But opinion polls suggest that confidence in the safety of US food has been undermined and the public needs reassurance.

A poll conducted for Newsweek magazine found that 54 per cent of those asked were less likely to buy hamburgers at fast-food outlets and 41 per cent were less likely to buy hamburgers at the supermarket. Instructions for safe cooking abounded, but the impracticality of many recommendations led one food expert to say that any burger cooked for the stated time would be "dry as a husk".

Around 9,000 people die of food poisoning in the US each year, and the figure is rising -some say because of better diagnosis and record-keeping.

Hudson Foods has insisted that its plant was strictly run and adhered to all hygiene regulations, and employees appeared to confirm that. While violations had been registered before, they were mostly for infringements not related to hygiene. The company's official line continues to be that the contamination must have come from outside the plant, probably from a slaughter house. Department of Agriculture inspectors do not rule out this possibility, but pressed for the closure of the plant after discovering what they said were lax procedures and record-keeping.

They singled out a practice, reportedly common in other meat packaging companies, whereby meat left over from one day's processing was added to the next day's batch without any record of which batches were involved. This meant, they said, that it was impossible to guarantee that the contamination had been contained in one day's production.

The hamburger chain Burger King, which is supplied by Hudson, announced on Saturday that they had cancelled their hamburger contract with Hudson and would never buy from the company again. They have, however, kept their contract for chicken, which comes from a different Hudson plant.