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E. coli cases lead to recall of 19 million pounds of beef

The federal government Friday ordered the second-largest recall of beef in U.S. history after at least 16 people became ill from eating meat contaminated with a potentially deadly strain of bacteria.

At the request of the Department of Agriculture, ConAgra Beef Co. of Greeley, Colo., recalled almost 19 million pounds of beef, mostly ground meat, that had been shipped during the past three months to 21 states. None was thought to have been sold in Florida.

The move came as a precaution after meat from the company was found to be contaminated with Escherichia coli or E. coli O157:H7, and illnesses thought caused by the contamination began to be reported. Small amounts of the bacteria can cause bloody diarrhea. Children and elderly people are vulnerable to kidney failure.

Five of the patients who fell ill, including four children, required hospitalization. While all the cases so far reported were in Colorado, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta reported six other cases of illness in California, Michigan, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming that may be linked to the bad beef.

While the tainted beef has not reached Florida, state agriculture officials in Tallahassee said they are monitoring the situation.

"We have notified all of our inspectors to be on the lookout for it, but as best as we can tell we don't know of any that's come into the state," said Dr. Wayne Derstine, the head of food inspections for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, who oversees food processing and grocery stores in the state.

"Alabama is about as close as it gets," Derstine said. "Most of this went to Safeway grocery stores, and we don't have any Safeway stores in Florida."

Consumer advocates applauded the move to recall the meat, which is second in size only to the withdrawal of 25 million pounds of beef in 1997. But they charged that the size of the recall suggested systemic problems in the nation's food supply.

"USDA has really taken the teeth out of the meat-safety program because they seem to be unwilling to close plants that continually violate the government's food-safety standards," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group. "USDA has a history of being a cheerleader of the meat and poultry industry rather than a watchdog."

Bob Mahlburg of the Sentinel's Tallahassee bureau contributed to this report.

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