WASHINGTON - The Agriculture Department will speed up warnings about contaminated meat in the future, officials said yesterday, as they sought to quell criticism of an 18-day delay in seeking the recall of millions of pounds of tainted ground beef.
Briefing reporters, department officials acknowledged that they knew as early as Sept. 7 that frozen hamburger patties could be contaminated after preliminary tests indicated the E. coli bacteria strain O157:H7.
They said it was impossible to seek a recall without conducting a more sophisticated test to confirm the original results, but said they would reevaluate what USDA can do better to warn the public sooner.
"Let me be clear from the beginning, at this point we weren't able to take action based on the initial test," said David Goldman, assistant administrator of the USDA's Office of Public Health Science.
Still, "this agency is not completely satisfied with the time elapsed and the issuance of the recall," he said. "We will be reviewing data related to this recall as well as our own protocol to determine how we might improve."
Richard Raymond, the department's undersecretary for food safety, added: "It's a policy we will be changing here."
The department's response comes after news reports disclosed an Agriculture Department e-mail showing the department knew on Sept. 7 about possible contamination but waited 18 days before concluding Topps Meat Co. should issue a recall.
The recall that began Sept. 25 was soon expanded to cover 21.7 million pounds of hamburger produced by Topps, based in Elizabeth, N.J.