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Illnesses Prompt Federal Recall of ConAgra Beef

Food: Sixteen confirmed cases of E. coli infection are linked to a plant in Colorado. The 19 million pounds of meat was shipped to 21 states.

July 20, 2002|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Agriculture officials announced a massive recall of nearly 19 million pounds of beef on Friday, saying the meat was linked to 22 confirmed or suspected E. coli infections in six states, including at least one case in Los Angeles County.

The voluntary recall, the second largest ever of ground beef, targets meat processed at ConAgra Beef Co.'s Greeley, Colo., plant between April 12 and July 11. The meat was shipped to stores in at least 21 states, officials said.

It marks the second time in less than a month that ConAgra--one of the nation's largest food distributors--has had to recall beef because of E. coli concerns. A recall of 354,200 pounds on June 30 was due to contamination confirmed by plant inspectors on June 19 and not, at the time, linked to illnesses.

The delays between the initial discovery of E. coli contamination and the two recalls led to sharp criticism of Agriculture Department procedures and prompted changes just last week.

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said the latest recall "is being taken as a precautionary measure to ensure the protection of public health. We are recommending that consumers and businesses who have purchased products on these specific dates should either return product to point of purchase or discard it."

Veneman and other federal officials conceded that individual consumers might have a hard time determining whether ground beef in their refrigerators and freezers was among the recalled lots because beef is often repackaged at retail outlets.

California state health officials confirmed Friday that a 32-year-old Los Angeles woman was sickened after eating contaminated ConAgra meat. The woman, said health department spokeswoman Lea Brooks, fell ill June 19 and has since recovered. She did not require hospitalization, Brooks said.

The exact source of the woman's infection has been difficult to trace, officials said, since she ate hamburger meat cooked rare on several occasions before getting sick.

And Los Angeles County health officials said they were investigating another case possibly linked to the ConAgra meat.

State and local officials said they were still trying to find out how much potentially contaminated product was shipped to California.

"We definitely want that information," Brooks said. "We are trying to determine if the product is still on the shelf [in stores and homes]. We don't know for certain where it has gone."

Some of the recalled beef was repackaged at Kroger Co. grocery stores, which include Ralphs and Food4Less outlets in Southern California. A Kroger spokesman said Friday afternoon that company officials were still working with ConAgra to determine which locations nationwide had received the potentially tainted beef.

"There is a lesson here," said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, Los Angeles County's public health director. "Cook your hamburger well-done, refrigerate or freeze your meat soon after buying it and always wash your hands thoroughly with warm, soapy water both before and after handling raw food."

USDA officials on Friday made available on their Web site (www.usda.gov) an extensive list of lot numbers and also advised consumers with questions about the recall to call (866) 849-7438.

E. coli is a potentially deadly bacterium that often causes severe stomach cramps and bloody diarrhea. It can be spread to meat during the butchering process from cattle feces or be transmitted through contaminated water. Meat containing E. coli does not look or smell bad, officials said.

Most at risk from E. coli bacteria are children, the elderly and anyone whose immune system is suppressed. About 73,000 people fall ill from E. coli each year and 60 die, according to CDC statistics.

ConAgra officials agreed to expand the recall Friday after officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that the E. coli strain found at the plant was directly linked to 16 confirmed cases of illness in Colorado and six suspected cases in California, Michigan, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming. Of the CDC-confirmed cases, five patients, including four children, required hospitalization.

Investigators at the Atlanta-based CDC began tracking the strain of E. coli discovered at the ConAgra plant after being informed July 8 by Colorado state health officials of a cluster of infections there.

Although Agriculture officials confirmed the presence of E. coli contamination at the ConAgra plant on June 19--following completion of tests on a sample taken five days earlier--the company was not informed of the finding until 10 days later.

On July 15, Linda Swacina, acting administrator for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, said it was "deeply troubling" that Colorado residents had gotten sick from consuming contaminated meat despite the "rigorous system of meat and poultry inspection."

In response, Swacina said, her division "sent an investigation team to the ConAgra plant in Colorado and has implemented a new policy to more quickly trace back tainted meat."

Veneman said Friday the Agriculture Department was continuing to investigate what had gone wrong at ConAgra's meat processing plant.

"Our goal is to determine what happened and to ensure the public health and safety," she said.

"And we will continue to act swiftly and responsibly to ensure a safe and wholesome food supply for consumers."

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