On Wednesday, the recall prompted The Kroger Co. to sanitize processing facilities and empty shelves at stores in 20 states, including Fred Meyers and QFCs in Oregon and Washington. Several other major grocery chains operating in the area were unaffected.
Nebraska Beef Ltd. voluntarily recalled 531,707 pounds of beef -- some sold by Fred Meyer stores with sell-by dates of May 21 to July 5 -- linked to 40 confirmed illnesses in Michigan and Ohio, said Roger Sockman, spokesman for U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
No deaths have been reported from the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. But 12 people in Ohio and nine in Michigan have been hospitalized, Sockman said.
No illnesses have been detected in Oregon.
USDA inspectors discovered E. coli in samples from Kroger stores and, with state health departments' help, traced back sickened patients' samples to Nebraska Beef. The agency categorized the recall as Class 1 for its high health risk.
A lawyer representing Nebraska Beef did not return repeated calls seeking comment Wednesday.
Nebraska Beef, which recalled meat it handled on five dates between May 16 and June 24, said in a brief statement Tuesday that it was not the sole supplier of the recalled product and its meat had been further processed or handled after leaving the company's control.
Cincinnati-based Kroger pulled ground beef sold at butcher counters, in Styrofoam containers or under the Private Selection Natural label. While sister chain QFC doesn't carry Nebraska Beef, it withdrew some other ground beef that could have been contaminated during processing, spokeswoman Kristin Maas said.
Fred Meyer expected to stock ground beef from two other suppliers by Wednesday afternoon, spokeswoman Melinda Merrill said. The company's Private Selection Organic beef, frozen beef patties and beef sold in tubes are considered safe, she said.
In a statement issued with the recall, Nebraska Beef officials wrote, "Since inception in 1995, the company has processed over 10 billion pounds of product without a confirmed customer illness."
But a Seattle lawyer isn't swayed.
Bill Marler, whose firm specializes in food-poisoning cases, sued Kroger and Nebraska Beef this week on behalf of a consumer who he said tested positive for E. coli O157:H7 after eating ground beef sold at a Kroger store in Dublin, Ohio.
Marler also is suing Nebraska Beef over a 2006 E. coli outbreak after a church potluck in Minnesota that killed a 73-year-old woman and sickened 16 other people. In that case, Marler said, he found Nebraska Beef had detected trimmings, such as fat and bone, contaminated with E. coli. The trimmings were tossed, Marler said, but not the actual meat that had been distributed. The meat, Marler said, was later genetically matched to some of the sick churchgoers' stools.
The company, in turn, sued its distributors and the church, Salem Lutheran of Longville, Minn. The company's legal team had the church's pastor give a deposition last week, Marler said.
In the past, Nebraska Beef's representatives have pointed out that the church women's auxiliary may have introduced contamination as they molded meatballs for a monthly fundraiser.
Marler said it would be uncommon for a slaughterhouse to perform an unnecessary recall.
"If they didn't sicken people," he said, referring to Nebraska Beef's statement earlier this week, "why would they voluntarily withdraw the meat?"
Nebraska Beef successfully sued the USDA in January 2003 to block the federal agency from shutting down one of its plants after the agency said it found E. coli-contaminated meat at a company subsidiary. The agency argued that serious food-safety violations warranted closure of the plant, which it said had a documented history of unsanitary conditions and violations.
Nebraska Beef argued that a closure could cost it $2.7 million a day and 1,100 jobs and drive the company out of business.
A federal judge granted Nebraska Beef a restraining order and a few weeks later the company agreed to a settlement with the agency that included additional food-safety monitoring. Soon after, the USDA dinged the company with nearly 60 noncompliance reports.
In May 2007, Nebraska Beef sued the agency -- and nine of its employees -- to argue that the inspectors had unfairly targeted its plant. The case was later dismissed.