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USDA Investigates Deadly Outbreak of Listeria in Northeast

Health: The source of the food-borne illness is still not known. E. coli is probed in the Midwest.

October 04, 2002|From Reuters

WASHINGTON — U.S. health and food officials said Thursday that they are investigating the source of a food-borne listeria outbreak blamed for at least 20 deaths and 120 illnesses in eight Northeastern states.

In a separate meat contamination probe, Cargill Inc. said the U.S. Agriculture Department closed its ground beef plant in Wisconsin that was linked to dozens of illnesses, mostly in the Midwest.

Both cases come at a time when the USDA has been criticized by lawmakers and consumer groups for failing to police food safety.

In the listeria outbreak, the USDA said its Food Safety and Inspection Service began "vigorous sampling" of lunch meats and deli products after illnesses were reported in early September. Most illnesses were in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey; however, Michigan, Maryland, Ohio, Connecticut and Delaware also were affected.

Federal officials have not yet been able to pinpoint whether the listeria contaminated ready-to-eat meats or other foods such as seafood, soft cheeses and unpasteurized milk.

"Working with state health officials, FSIS investigators have been probing every possible lead in an attempt to narrow the list of possible sources of contamination," FSIS Administrator Garry McKee said in a statement.

"Multiple samples have been collected and analyzed, but as of yet, all have tested negative."

Of the 120 listeria illnesses reported to health officials, 36 were linked through laboratory tests, said FSIS spokesman Steve Cohen. The 36 illnesses resulted in six deaths.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it has not yet determined the strain of listeria that caused the other 14 deaths.

Food contaminated with listeria monocytogenes can cause high fever, severe headaches and nausea. The disease is especially dangerous to pregnant women, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems from cancer or other diseases.

The USDA is responsible for regulating the safety of beef, chicken and eggs, while the Food and Drug Administration has authority over most other foods.

In the separate E. coli outbreak, the USDA temporarily shut down the Cargill plant after its ground beef sickened at least 57 people in seven states.

Cargill's Milwaukee-based Emmpak Foods, doing business as Peck Meats, late Wednesday night sharply expanded its recall of ground beef to 2.8 million pounds.

"USDA has shut the plant down," said Mark Klein, the company's spokesman. "We are working with USDA to determine what it will take to reopen it to their satisfaction."

Privately owned Cargill bought Emmpak Foods in August 2001.

Tainted Cargill ground beef was linked to illnesses in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, New York and New Jersey, the USDA said.

The ground beef was produced between Aug. 20 and Aug. 24 and distributed to grocery stores, hotels, restaurants and other institutions.

The expanded recall is unlikely to turn up much of the contaminated meat, Cargill said.

"We are expecting very little product to come back because of the production times," Klein said. "Most of this has already been consumed."

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