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Did One Company Knowingly Ship Tainted Meat?

New and disturbing questions have arisen about a deadly bacteria outbreak 3 years ago, and what the manufacturer, Sara Lee, knew about the meat it was shipping. CBS News has obtained documents that shed new light on a class-action settlement with Sara Lee reached only 2 months ago.

According to federal investigators, employees at a Sara Lee plant in western Michigan allegedly knew they were shipping tainted meat that was later linked to a nationwide outbreak of listeriosis that may have killed at least 15 people and seriously sickened many more.

Managers at Sara Lee's Bil Mar plant in Michigan not only knew they were shipping tainted meat later linked to 15 deaths: They may also have tried to cover it up. Employees who discussed the problem were told, "Loose tongues sink ships," according to statements given to federal investigators obtained by CBS News.

The report by the Agriculture Department's Office of Inspector General also says one of the USDA's own meat inspectors told investigators management "skirted the law" by not testing their meat for listeria even though they knew there was a listeria problem. Management thought it could get away with selling hot dogs and deli meats as long as the presence of the deadly bacteria was not confirmed.

But the plea US Attorney Phillip Green got from Sara Lee was: guilty to a single misdemeanor charge. "It’s highly unusual to get a criminal plea in these kinds of cases," he says. Although federal prosecutors had access to the agriculture department's report prior to the settlement, Green said the government investigation found "no evidence Sara Lee intentionally distributed the adulterated meat." Today consumer groups are demanding congressional action.

"He was supposed to be protecting the American public and instead the corporation got all of the protection and a little slap on the wrist," says Nancy Donley, president of Safe Tables Our Priority, a consumer advocacy group.

Chicago attorney Kenneth Moll recently settled a class action lawsuit against Sara Lee.

"This new evidence clearly sheds light that Sara Lee knew about a problem and could have prevented these deaths," says Moll.

Moll says he will ask a federal judge to rescind the settlement. Sara Lee will likely contest that--telling CBS News, "The federal government has said, and we concur, that we did not knowingly distribute meat products that contained listeria."

The U.S. Attorney hasn't given any indication that he plans to reconsider the settlement. The USDA's Office of Inspector General says today it stands behind its investigators report.
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