An E. coli outbreak linked to ConAgra ground beef widened Monday with confirmation that three more Coloradans were sickened with the sometimes-fatal illness.
Those test results mean that at least 26 people in four states have gotten sick from the tainted beef, which was processed at Con-Agra's Greeley plant.
And even though Colorado health officials said they believe the outbreak may be winding down, investigators in other states are looking at illnesses that may have been caused by the same batch of ground beef.
At the same time, criticism of the federal government's process of dealing with tainted meat continued in the face of Friday's announcement that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had prompted the recall of more than 18 million pounds of ConAgra beef produced between April 12 and July 11. It was second-largest recall ever, behind a 1997 recall of 25 million pounds.
That move came after the June 30 recall of 354,200 pounds of ground beef that was tainted with E. coli, a bacteria that can cause intestinal bleeding and kidney problems and can sometimes prove fatal. Cooking meat to 160 degrees kills E. coli.
"This is nothing but political," said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney specializing in food safety cases who represents some of the Coloradans who were sickened. "It is the USDA attempting to cover themselves from public criticism."
And Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, said she will introduce a bill this week calling for mandatory - rather than voluntary - recalls. Under the current system, companies decide whether to recall meat.
"We really need a mandatory recall," DeGette said. "We need to tighten things up."
The ConAgra beef covered by the two recalls was distributed in at least 33 states.
Among the three new cases confirmed Monday were two in which the same DNA fingerprint was found in the bacteria.
They included a 70-year-old woman from Park County who was hospitalized and released, and a 16-year-old girl from Douglas County who didn't require hospitalization.
The third new case couldn't be traced to a DNA fingerprint because the 16-year-old girl from Arapahoe County was on antibiotics, which shield the detection. However, investigators found meat in her freezer that tested positive for E. coli 0157:H7, said Lori Maldonado, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The strain has been linked to four cases of E. coli in South Dakota, one in Wyoming and one in California. And it may be tied to others.
For example, a man who got sick in Spokane, Wash., was infected with the same E. coli, said Tim Church of the Washington State Department of Health.
The investigation is continuing, but ConAgra beef was sold at a Tidyman's grocery store where the man shopped, Church said.
And health officials in New Hampshire said three illnesses there could be linked to the ConAgra meat.
Pam Shillman, an epidemiologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said it looked Monday as though the number of illnesses in the state was "beginning to return to normal levels."
In the wake of the outbreak, critics have argued that the USDA is too reluctant to go after big meat packers, taking weeks to double- and triple-check their tests before going back to the source - the slaughterhouse.
The first contamination in this outbreak was found June 18 at a small plant that re-grinds meat from ConAgra.
But it wasn't until June 24 that a batch of ConAgra's meat was tested and not until June 29 that it was found to be contaminated with E. coli.
And it wasn't until July 11 that USDA inspectors sampled enough beef at the Greeley plant to conclude that the meat was now safe.
"Everybody who's done these cases as long as I have knows that recalling fresh meat that has been out there for seven, eight weeks is a sham," said Marler, the attorney. "I have no idea why the USDA does that other than to publicly humiliate ConAgra."