NORFOLK, Neb. - A federal inspector Monday began investigating a possible link between the BeefAmerica packing plant here and tainted ground beef found in a Virginia grocery store.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said records at a supermarket in Emporia, Va., where E. coli bacteria was found in fresh ground beef, indicated that the beef originated from the Norfolk plant.
Meat from the plant is not under recall, said Jacque Knight, a USDA spokeswoman in Washington. She said no illnesses have been reported stemming from the tainted meat in Virginia.
BeefAmerica does not believe the plant is the source of the contamination, said company spokesman Keith DeHann. The plant, which employs about 1,000 workers, was operating as usual Monday.
"We haven't been provided any evidence or fact that it (the beef) is ours," he said. "We know that there was one other supplier's product there at the store at the same time."
BeefAmerica sells beef to wholesalers and distributors, who may repackage it before selling it to grocery stores directly, Mr. DeHann said.
The Great Valu Supermarket in Emporia, Va., is conducting a voluntary recall of any fresh ground beef sold in the store Sept. 3 or 4.
Ms. Knight said the bacteria probably is isolated to the beef sold at the store those two days and all the meat in question probably already has been consumed.
The contamination was detected as part of the USDA's random meat-sampling program that has been in place since 1994, Ms. Knight said. The strain of bacteria detected at the Virginia store is the E. coli O157:H7, which can cause serious illness or even death if the meat is not cooked properly, she said.
Last month, possible contamination by E. coli led to the recall of 25 million pounds of ground beef from a Hudson Foods plant in Columbus. USDA and Hudson officials have said they believe the Hudson beef was contaminated before it arrived at the company from another supplier.
Unlike the Hudson plant, the BeefAmerica plant slaughters cattle itself and does not receive beef from outside suppliers.
Ground beef makes up only about 10 percent of operations at the BeefAmerica plant in Norfolk, which packs other types of beef as well.
Determining the source of the bacteria found in the Virginia store has been difficult, said Ms. Knight. One meat sample from the Virginia store was taken after it was run through a grinder not cleaned before the test. A second sample from an unopened package of ground beef also tested positive for E. coli, she said.
Ms. Knight said it appears the meat in question was shipped from the BeefAmerica plant in Norfolk to a distributor in Richmond, Va., and then to the supermarket.
"The BeefAmerica plant has been very cooperative in working with us so far," she said.