Jack Lambersky Poultry Company Inc., of Camden, N.J., is pulling the ready-to-eat meat packaged between May 29 and Nov. 2 because it may be contaminated with listeria, a harmful bacterium. The company, which does business as J.L. Foods, initially recalled 200,000 pounds of the meat on Nov. 2. The products were distributed to stores and institutions across the country.
As CBS News Correspondent Lee Cowan reports, what started out as a minor recall at a meat processing plant outside Camden has turned into what could be the first real clue to solving a mystery illness.
According to Dr. Elsa Moreno of the USDA, "We want to make sure that we find all the possible sources of contamination."
Federal inspectors are uncertain if the bacterium found in the recalled meat matches the strain linked to the outbreak in the Northeast which sickened 52 people, killing seven and causing three miscarriages. Investigators still are analyzing a sample taken Nov. 14 from meat sliced and sold at a business in Brooklyn, N.Y., according to the Agriculture Department.
The company said in a statement that it is cooperating with inspectors to determine where the meat became contaminated.
But until now investigators had been unable to trace that strain of listeria to any specific product.
And while the investigation is far from over, consumer groups say even this step took far too long.
"The listeria testing program is really spotty, I think is the best way to put it," says Patty Lovera of Public Citizen.
Last month investigators found listeria in another company's plant outside Philadelphia, but by the time the recall was issued most of the product had already been consumed.
"If this is going to be an agency devoted to public health, like they keep claiming they are, they're going to have to find a way to make this program work," Lovera tells Cowan.
Despite the recent outbreak, the USDA says the number of listeria cases has actually dropped in recent years. But with pressure mounting, changes are already in the works to make testing even tougher.
Listeria can cause flu-like symptoms, including fever, muscle aches and diarrhea. It can thrive in low temperatures, tainting refrigerated processed foods, such as sandwich meat and soft cheese. Pregnant women, the elderly, children, and people with weak immune systems are the most vulnerable to infection.
"Consumers should check their refrigerators and freezers for products involved in this recall and return them to the point of purchase," said Garry L. McKee, administrator for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
J.L. Foods is one of two companies so far that have issued recalls in connection with the listeria investigation. Wampler Foods, owned by Pilgrim's Pride, is the other.
McKee and other USDA officials have warned the meat and poultry industry in the past few months that the department will enforce food safety laws to protect public health.
Consumers with questions about the recall can call Kenneth Martin, general manager for J.L. Foods Company, at: (800) 881-3250. A list of the pulled products is available on the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service Web site.