WASHINGTON — A federal investigation into dangerous bacteria that may have contaminated about 1 million pounds of ground beef focused Monday on whether the threat came from a Midwest slaughterhouse or perhaps from an unwitting employee of a packing plant.
Meanwhile, the World Trade Organization made public a report, issued June 30, that found that the European Union's ban on hormone-treated beef violates global free-trade rules, the U.S. trade representative's office said.
"I am pleased that the WTO agreed that the EU has no scientific basis for blocking the sale of American beef in Europe," said U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky. "I am pleased that the panel affirmed the need for food safety measures to be based on science, as they are in the U.S."
The EU has said it will appeal the ruling; the United States said it "expects that the WTO appellate body would support the panel's conclusions." Since the ban went into effect in 1989, the U.S. beef industry contends that it has lost at least $250 million in exports a year.
U.S. Department of Agriculture officials were intensifying their testing for E. coli bacteria at the Hudson Foods Co. plant in Columbus, Neb., officials said. The once-a-day sampling will continue for 15 days. Last week, the government recalled 1.2 million pounds of ground beef in one of the largest meat recalls in U.S. history.
So far, government officials say there appears to be no reason for additional recalls. Fewer than a dozen people have contacted a USDA hotline saying they may have become ill after eating Hudson burgers, but none of those are verified E. coli cases.
The USDA said the source of the contamination has not yet been identified but added that it most likely came from outside the plant, which processes as much as 3 million pounds of beef a week, mainly for large restaurant and retail chains.
Investigators will also check with some of the plant's 230 employees to determine if any of them might have been ill or can remember any other circumstance that might have brought them into contact with E. coli.
James T. Hudson, chairman and founder of the Rogers, Ark.-based company that bears his name, told Associated Press the bacteria likely came from one of his suppliers.