July 19, 2002 -- Food giant ConAgra is launching the country's second-largest ground beef recall after more than 19 people have become ill from eating meat contaminated with a potentially deadly bacteria.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the recall today. ConAgra will recall 18.6 million pounds of fresh and frozen ground beef that was distributed to grocery stores in 21 states. A least 19 people, mostly in Colorado, have become sick from eating meat contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7.
"Because of the potential of food-borne illness from consumption of meat products contaminated with harmful bacteria such as E. coli 0157:H7, consumers who have purchased the suspect product are encouraged not to consume it and return it to the place of purchase," said William Hudnall, acting administrator of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), in announcing the recall.
The recall is an expansion of a June 30 voluntary recall of more than 350,000 pounds of fresh and frozen beef products from the ConAgra's Greeley, Colo., processing plant. After further testing, an FSIS investigation found the ground beef products produced at the plant had a heightened risk of contamination with E. coli 0157:H7.
When ingested by humans, this strain of E. coli can lead to dehydration, kidney failure, and even death. Symptoms of infection include severe abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea that occurs about two or three days after eating contaminated meat. Anyone who suspects they may be infected should seek medical attention immediately.
Children, the elderly, and anyone with a weakend immune system are most susceptible to infection, as well as to any other type of food-borne illness.
But health officials say cooking even contaminated meats to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F will kill any harmful bacteria, including this strain of E. coli.
E. coli bacteria are found in the intestinal tracts and feces of livestock. Experts say meat usually becomes contaminated with the bacteria at some point during the production process when the surface of the meat somehow comes in contact with infected fecal matter. Since ground meat has more surface area than a steak, it has a higher risk of contamination.
"That's why we have to concern ourselves with thorough cooking because the infected surface area is ground within the meat," says Michael Doyle, PhD, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia.
Doyle says the only way you can know for sure if your hamburger has been cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F. is to use a meat thermometer. "Color is not an absolute indicator."
People may also become infected by eating foods that have come in contact with raw, contaminated meats, poultry, or their juices. Doyle says summer barbecues are common sources of this type of contamination.
"People put raw meat or poultry on a plate, take it out, and cook it on the grill and then put that cooked meat back on the same plate with the raw juices on it," Doyle tells WebMD. Those raw juices can recontaminate any cooked or ready-to-eat foods.
"A good rule of thumb is to consider any raw food of animal origin as potentially contaminated with harmful bacteria," says Doyle. "So handle it properly. Wash your hands after handling it and don't cross-contaminate it with other foods."
The labels on all products subject to the recall bear the establishment code "EST. 969" inside the USDA seal of inspection. All of the ground beef products included in the recall were produced on about 28 different days between April 12 and June 29, 2002. Each product has a packaging date of "APR 12" through "JUN 29" on its label.
The Agriculture Department has not released a list of states involved in the updated recall. The states involved in the initial recall were Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wyoming.
For more information on the recall, including lot numbers and more detailed label information of the recalled items, go to the FSIS portion of the USDA's web site at http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OA/recalls/prelease/pr055-2002.htm.
The last major beef recall of this scope occurred in 1997, when Hudson Beef recalled a record 35 million pounds of meat.