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ConAgra E. coli cases up to 25

More tested for link to recalled beef

By David Migoya

Denver Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, July 23, 2002 - Colorado health officials on Monday confirmed three more people were sickened by the E. coli bacteria that last week caused ConAgra to recall nearly 19 million pounds of beef.

Four people in two other states - three in New Hampshire and one in Nebraska - also appear to have been infected by the same bacteria, officials in those states said Monday. Additional tests are being done to see if the cases are linked to ground beef produced at ConAgra's slaughterhouse in Greeley.

The three new confirmed cases in Colorado - a pair of 16-year-old girls and a 70-year-old woman - bring to 25 the number of people nationally to fall ill after eating the tainted meat.

Twenty of the victims are from Colorado. The others are in California, Michigan, South Dakota and Washington.

Officials in those states, as well as in Iowa, said Monday they're examining eight more cases of E. coli-related illnesses for links to the ConAgra outbreak.

Wyoming officials said a case they linked to the outbreak last week was being re-examined.

ConAgra has already agreed to pay the medical and lost-wage costs of 13 victims from Colorado, estimated to be at least $1 million, who were hospitalized after eating the ConAgra product, according to the families' attorney.

"We will work toward resolving the cases amicably, out of court, in the best interest of the kids" and their families, said Seattle attorney William Marler.

The company on Friday recalled 18.6 million pounds of ground beef and beef trim, which is used to make ground products, three weeks after issuing a recall of 354,200 pounds of ground beef.

The meat was distributed to 21 states. As of Monday, only 12,000 pounds had been returned, ConAgra spokesman Jim Herlihy said.

Marler on Monday also called for reforms to the USDA meat inspection and recall system.

"This recent recall is a sham," said Marler, whose firm represented the victim of an under-cooked Jack in the Box hamburger in 1993, the nation's first outbreak of E. coli poisoning.

"Most, if not all, of the meat has been consumed," he said. "The (inspection and recall) system is completely broken."

Herlihy said no illnesses have been linked to meat outside the original recall, which affected ground beef produced at the Greeley plant on May 31.

The second largest recall in U.S. history occurred after the U.S. Department of Agriculture determined E. coli 0157:H7, a virulent strain of the bacteria, likely had contaminated more meat than initially thought.

It was unclear why the expanded recall included beef produced as long ago as April 12. While word of a larger recall began to circulate Wednesday after USDA officials visited ConAgra to review company records, it wasn't announced until Friday.

Industry experts pointed to Hudson Foods in Nebraska, where a 25,000-pound recall in 1997 quickly grew to 25 million pounds. The recall expanded after it was discovered Hudson mixed unused beef trim from one day's production with previous days, a cycle that apparently continued for months.

Safeway Inc., which sold some of the recalled ConAgra meat and where many of the Colorado victims purchased the beef they ate, suspended its ground beef purchases from the Greeley plant until the USDA completes its investigation.

Kroger, Wal-Mart and Food Lion were among the grocery stores and supermarket chains that pulled food products from their shelves in reaction to the recall.

In accepting ConAgra's payment of medical expenses, victims agree to work out additional settlements without filing lawsuits against the company, Marler said.

Brad Turner of The Denver Post contributed to this report.

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