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Ag Department recalls Cargill ground beef

by Janet Moore, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

August 26, 2010

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has recalled 8,500 pounds of ground beef distributed by a division of Minnetonka-based agribusiness giant Cargill Inc. for a rare strain of E. coli after three people on the East Coast fell ill.

The recall involves beef sold at 26 BJ's Wholesale Club locations in Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maryland. Federal officials learned of the problem on Aug. 5.

Two people in Maine and one person in New York were sickened with the strain of E. coli 026, which they contracted between June 24 and July 16, according to a USDA news release. No one was hospitalized, said Mike Martin, a Cargill spokesman.

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Services "determined that there is an association between the ground beef products subject to recall and the cluster of illnesses in the states of Maine and New York."

The government designated the recall as Class 1 -- meaning there is a "reasonable probability" that the beef could cause serious illness and death. E. coli 026 can cause bloody diarrhea, dehydration, even kidney failure. Children, seniors and people with weak immune systems are among the most vulnerable.

The recalled beef was produced at a meat-packing plant in Wyalusing, Pa., on June 11 and shipped to distribution centers in Connecticut and Maryland. It was repackaged at BJ stores into consumer-sized portions sold under different brand names, which the USDA did not specify.

Meat may still be in freezers

The products have a use/freeze date of July 1, 2010, an "establishment number" of 9400 inside the USDA mark of inspection, and an identifying product code of W69032. The Agriculture Department said it is concerned that some of the recalled meat may be lingering in home freezers.

"Food safety is a top priority for our meat business, and we need to make sure we do the right thing when something like this comes to our attention," said Cargill's Martin.

The strain of E. coli in this recall is different from one that severely injured a young Cold Spring dance instructor in 2007. Stephanie Smith lost use of her legs, bowel and bladder after eating a tainted hamburger produced by Cargill. She sued the company and reached a confidential settlement in May.

William Marler, a Seattle attorney who represented Smith, said Saturday that the E. coli 026 strain is considered rare because "no one is testing for this bug, so nobody knows what the prevalence is."

Legislation is pending in Congress that would require the USDA to broaden testing for E. coli to include the type in Saturday's recall.

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