- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 20, 2002

From combined dispatches
A recall of contaminated hamburger linked to E. coli bacteria illnesses among 22 persons is being expanded to 19 million pounds of meat sold nationwide, the Agriculture Department said yesterday.
"As far as we are concerned, every state should be alert and aware of the situation," said Dan Puzo, spokesman for the USDA food safety and inspection service.
The beef recall by ConAgra Beef Co. of Greeley, Colo., expands a previous recall at the end of last month.
The first recall involved cases shipped to Colorado, Alabama, Virginia, Maryland, New Mexico, Kansas, Michigan, Texas, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, New York, California, Illinois, Iowa, Tennessee, New Jersey, Minnesota, Arizona and Idaho.
The Agriculture Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 16 persons have been diagnosed with E. coli from the tainted meat in Colorado. Six other ill persons in California, Michigan, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming might be linked to the ConAgra meat.
"This action is being taken as a cautionary measure to ensure the protection of public health," said Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman. "Public health is our number one priority and it is our number one concern."
E. coli can cause bloody diarrhea, dehydration and kidney damage. Children and the elderly are the most at risk.
The 19 million pounds of meat were produced between April 12 and July 11, officials said.
Officials are still collecting details and expect to release more information that will allow consumers to identify products that should be returned to stores or discarded.
"This has just begun," said Elsa Murano, the undersecretary for food safety.
She said no E. coli has been found at the plant since July 11.
The company is cooperating with the Agriculture Department, officials said. Miss Veneman, asked whether the department will cite the company for violations, said a government investigation at the plant is continuing.
Company officials would not comment.
The recall is the biggest since 1997, when Hudson Foods recalled 35 million pounds of ground beef when 15 persons in Colorado fell ill from E. coli after eating hamburger from its Columbus, Neb., plant.
Two weeks ago, the company recalled 354,200 pounds of ground beef and nearly a month after a positive E. coli test at a Denver packing house raised the first sign of trouble.
The Agriculture Department has been scrambling to recover from criticism of how it handled the first ConAgra recall last month.
The department's Food Safety and Inspection Service conceded that it waited 10 days after federal meat inspectors first detected the E. coli bacteria in a Conagra sample before notifying the company.
The department said this week it revised its food safety policy. Federal meat inspectors will immediately alert a beef company when its sample tests positive for E. coli, instead of waiting until an investigation is complete.
In the earlier ConAgra recall, USDA tests confirmed the bacteria's presence June 19, but the company was not notified until after an investigation was completed June 29. ConAgra announced its first recall the next day.
E. coli is a bacteria found in the intestinal tracts and feces of livestock. If it contaminates meat, it can lead to digestive illnesses and potentially death in humans. Health officials have been urging consumers to cook their ground beef to 160 degrees in the center to completely kill the pathogen.
Agriculture officials said no one is currently hospitalized, although some people have been admitted and released.
Testing is under way in other states as public health officials try to establish the scope of the outbreak.
The voluntary recall is of beef trim which is used to make ground beef, as well as fresh and frozen ground beef products that may be contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7, officials said.
Americans ate 69.5 pounds of beef per person in 2000, reflecting steady but modest increases since 1993, when consumption fell to 65.1 pounds, officials said.
Shares of ConAgra fell $1.81 to $21.94 on the New York Stock Exchange.
Staff writer Marguerite Higgins contributed to this report.

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