Kentucky cattle wholesaler fined $25,000 in case that raised concerns about tainted beef

A London cattle wholesaler was fined $25,000 Wednesday in a case the government said raised concerns about beef tainted with illegal levels of drug residue.

The total fine for Williams Cattle Co. was $75,000, but U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar suspended $50,000 of that for two years, according to the company's attorney, David S. Hoskins.

A federal prosecutor had sought a $100,000 fine.

Williams buys cows at auctions and transports them to slaughterhouses. It is a significant wholesaler, selling 1,000 to 2,000 cows a week, according to a court document.

In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration alleged that the company had sold numerous cows over 10 years that had unsafe levels of residue from antibiotics in their tissue. That lawsuit said such residue could cause allergic reactions and contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria in humans.

In settling that case, the company agreed to take steps to try to prevent the problem.

The steps included notifying the original producers when federal inspectors found drug residues in cattle Williams had bought, developing plans with sellers to prevent further contamination, blocking sales from cattle producers who did not sign such plans, and affirming to customers that cows Williams sold were drug-free.

Last year, a federal grand jury charged that the company and treasurer Pamela Collette had given false information to food-safety regulators under the agreement.

An FDA inspection found 25 people who had sold cattle to Williams with illegal levels of drug residue. There were no plans on file from several of them to try to prevent that, and the producers had not been placed on a no-sales list, according to one court document.

In addition, the company had preventive plans on file for some cattle producers who said they hadn't filled them out, according to a government motion.

Federal regulators don't think Williams intentionally sought to endanger the public, but its actions created a potential to do that, Assistant U.S. Attorney W. Samuel Dotson said in a motion.

Hoskins said the company substantially complied with the 2006 agreement, but that in many cases Williams had no way of knowing who raised the cattle it bought because the purchases were at auctions.

And if Williams hadn't bought the cattle, someone else would have, Hoskins said.

"Not one single tainted hamburger was consumed as a result of Williams' conduct in this case," he said in a motion. "Nor would strict compliance have kept one tainted animal from going to slaughter."

Williams Cattle pleaded guilty to contempt for violating the 2006 agreement. It agreed to continue working under the earlier mandate to try to keep tainted beef out of the food system.

Prosecutors dismissed charges against Collette.