ConAgra recalls 18 million pounds of ground beef because of E coli O157:H7 risk

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Jul 19, 2002 (CIDRAP News) – ConAgra Foods is voluntarily recalling 18 million pounds of ground beef from a plant in Greeley, Colo., as a result of 16 cases of Escherichia coli O157:H7 infection linked with meat from the plant, US Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials announced today.

The action, one of the largest ground beef recalls on record, is an expansion of a 354,000-pound voluntary recall that USDA announced Jun 30.

"The scientific and technical review of the plant practices and company records has resulted today in USDA announcing an expanded voluntary recall of approximately 18 million pounds of beef trim and frozen ground beef products," Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said at a press conference today. "This is being taken as a precautionary measure to protect public health."

The meat subject to the recall was produced between Apr 12 and Jul 11, USDA officials said. They said the agency has been testing all meat produced there since Jul 11 and has found no further contamination.

"There is no way of knowing for sure how much [of the meat'] is still in consumers' hands," USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety, Elsa Murano, said at the press conference. "We're issuing the recall to try to collect as much of the product as possible."

Consumers who want to know if they have possibly tainted meat can call a USDA hot line at 1-800-535-4555 or call the store where they bought the meat, said Murano. Consumers who have the meat should discard it or return it to the store, said Veneman.

Labels on the meat subject to recall should bear the code "EST. 969" inside the USDA inspection seal, USDA officials said. The agency's news release includes a long list of possible labeling versions to help identify the beef. However, Murano said some of the meat probably was repackaged at retail stores and so would be hard to identify.

The original ConAgra recall was announced Jun 30 and was not initially associated with any illness cases, according to the USDA. That recall stemmed from a finding of E coli O157:H7 contamination in a beef sample taken by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Jun 14. The contamination in the sample was confirmed Jun 19, USDA said in an earlier announcement.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced today that Colorado health officials have identified 16 cases of E coli O157:H7 infection associated with ground beef from the Greeley plant. In addition, six more cases of E coli O157:H7 infection that may be related to the Colorado cluster have been reported in California, Michigan, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming, CDC officials said. A Jul 15 news release from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment mentioned 17 cases in Colorado alone.

Pulsed-field gel electrophoresis showed that E coli O157:H7 isolates from the 16 Colorado patients were indistinguishable, CDC officials said. "Based on patient interviews, molecular fingerprinting methods, and initial traceback, these cases have been associated with consumption of ground beef products" recalled by ConAgra Jun 30, they said.

CDC officials first learned of the E coli outbreak from Colorado officials Jul 8. Murano said the FSIS was already investigating practices at the Greeley plant when it learned, on Jul 10, that there were illness cases possibly linked with the contaminated beef. "As soon as we heard about the outbreak, we just simply sent additional experts to the plant," she said. The ensuing review of plant practices and company records led to today's announcement. "The investigation indicated that product destined to become ground beef that was produced at the Greeley plant had a heightened possibility of containing E. coli O157:H7," the USDA news release stated.

Media reports have said that ConAgra was not notified of the E coli contamination until Jun 29, 10 days after it had been confirmed in the sample taken Jun 14. A statement issued Jul 15 by Linda Swacina, acting FSIS administrator, said that the original sample was from a plant "that further processes coarse ground beef" and implied that initially it was not clear where the meat originally had come from. "Analysis resulted in ConAgra being identified as the source of the contamination, which triggered the recall," Swacina said.

Swacina continued, "FSIS will now inform the suppliers to a further processing facility, both verbally and in writing, when a positive E. coli O157:H7 sample is discovered in ground beef supplied to that facility. This will allow all the suppliers to take proactive steps without waiting for results from the FSIS investigation."

Four of the 17 Colorado residents who became ill in the outbreak were hospitalized but have been released, Colorado health officials said in their Jul 15 news release.

Veneman said the largest ground beef recall on record was a Hudson Foods recall involving 25 million pounds in 1997. She stressed today that cooking ground beef to 160°F eliminates the risk of E coli contamination.

USDA's Jul 19 news release on the recall
http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OA/recalls/prelease/pr055-2002.htm

CDC press release
http://www.cdc.gov/media/pressrel/b020719.htm

Jul 15 statement by Linda Swacina of FSIS
http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OA/news/2002/swacina071502.htm

Jun 30 recall announcement by FSIS
http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OA/recalls/prelease/pr055-2002a.htm

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