Those suspensions lasted just a few days, until the company showed the government that it fixed its problems. Even so, during the past three years, the company failed to meet requirements more often than all but one other ground beef supplier.
Beef Packers also ranked high among those whose meat frequently tested positive for dangerous pathogens. In 2007 and 2008, its rate of positive tests for salmonella measured almost twice the rate that's typical for the nation's best-performing, high-volume ground beef producers, USA TODAY found.
Still, the company kept getting government business. Since 2003, Beef Packers has garnered almost $60 million in contracts.
"When you're dealing with repeated violations, why do we continue to reward these companies?" asks Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee on agriculture.
Until this week, many details that would help gauge a company's performance remained hidden from public view. The USDA said it was its policy, for instance, not to say which companies tested positive for pathogens.
In response to a USA TODAY request under the Freedom of Information Act submitted in October, the USDA released data from the tests but initially withheld the names of the companies that corresponded with each result. Divulging their identities "would discourage companies from contracting to supply product for the National School Lunch Program and hamper our ability to provide the safe and nutritious foods to America's school children," USDA spokesman Bobby Gravitz wrote in an e-mail to USA TODAY.
"That's unbelievable," says Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. and a member of the committee that oversees the lunch program. "We should have transparency in testing. They should be required to disclose that information."
The newspaper appealed the USDA's decision. On Monday, the department released the names of the companies.
Why no recall?
When the USDA and Beef Packers issued the summer recall, Colorado health officials were gratified.
At least 21 Colorado residents had gotten sick from the Newport strain, and until this summer, the USDA had never championed a recall of raw ground beef that contained salmonella. Scientists agree that cooking ground beef to an internal temperature of 165 degrees should kill the pathogen. Even so, Colorado state epidemiologist Alicia Cronquist lauds the decision.
"We think it's quite a dangerous thing to have multidrug-resistant salmonella in your ground beef," Cronquist says. Antibiotics typically control such infections.
USDA and AMS officials say they had no such concerns that the strain was in the school orders produced in June by Beef Packers. In written responses provided to the newspaper, officials cite three primary reasons for not including the school products in the recall:
•Tests on the ground beef were negative for pathogens.
The government relies on testing to help verify efforts to keep salmonella out of the production process. Samples of the finished ground beef are taken by AMS workers and tested at a lab that contracts with the government.
The tests have shortcomings. Typically, the samples represent just a fraction of the order — sometimes about one-1000th of 1%. In 2006, the USDA occasionally ran two tests for bacteria on the same batch of beef and the results were sometimes different.