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U.S. shuts beef plant after two recalls

The U.S. Department of Agriculture took action to shut down a beef-processing plant in Nebraska that had recently recalled more than 600,000 pounds of meat because of E. coli contamination.

The department withdrew its inspectors on Friday from the Beef America Operating Co. plant in Norfolk, Neb., after discovering repeated violations of sanitation rules governing fecal contamination and other problems that the company had been warned about.

Removal of federal meat inspectors effectively closes a processing plant.

"This decision is based on your inability to maintain and operate your facility in a sanitary manner," Fernando Siores, USDA's inspector in charge, said in a letter to BeefAmerica.

Among the problems cited by USDA were contamination with animal-fecal matter _ the source of E. coli and other dangerous bacteria _ on finished beef products and some ready for shipment.

In addition, USDA found peeling paint on surfaces that come into contact with meat, and hydraulic fluid and blood were observed dripping on equipment.

"Your corrective actions have been ineffective," Siores wrote. "You have failed to prevent direct product contamination and adulteration."

In two tests _ one at a Virginia store and one at the plant _ the department found E. coli bacteria in ground beef produced at the Nebraska plant. The company last week recalled 169,000 pounds of beef and in October recalled more than 443,000 pounds.

No illnesses were reported in either recall, but the letter says BeefAmerica is not properly testing for E. coli contamination.

BeefAmerica was ordered to draft by Friday a written plan with "acceptable corrective actions" to fix the problems before USDA inspectors will return.

CEO Bob Norton said he was shocked by the department's action. He said company officials are working with inspectors to correct the problems with the goal of having the plant operating Monday.

BeefAmerica was checking with distributors in 13 states to determine whether consumers might have beef from the most recent recall. The beef is distributed to groceries and restaurants. The states are California, Montana, Nebraska, Missouri, Indiana, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Kentucky, West Virginia, Iowa, Illinois, Colorado and North Carolina.