Tainted beef from Colorado plant may be to blame
By David Migoya and Allison Sherry
Denver Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 12, 2002 - Recalled E. coli-tainted ground beef that has sickened a dozen Coloradans may have infected people in at least two other states.
At least one illness outside Colorado has been attributed to ground beef recalled from a Greeley slaughterhouse, but health officials in other states say that number might increase. Colorado officials also are testing new cases that might be related to the beef.
Meanwhile, Safeway Inc. on Thursday expanded the number of ground beef products it has pulled from its shelves in five Western states and suspended ground beef purchases from ConAgra Beef Co.
Several victims said they purchased the meat they ate from Safeway stores.
ConAgra's Greeley slaughterhouse produced the tainted product, which was recalled June 30, but the meat had been for sale since June 1 in at least 10 states.
Attorneys for some of the sick say the number of victims could increase as symptoms begin to surface in people who may have consumed the tainted meat over the holiday weekend.
"This easily can become known as the Fourth of July Outbreak," said William Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in food-safety issues and represents four Colorado families linked to the outbreak. "I don't think this is over yet."
In Denver, 2-year-old Olivia Rodriguez was the only victim who remained hospitalized. She is in good condition and is expected to return home this weekend, her parents said.
Products: All ground beef products, packaged in either white or yellow foam trays with "sell by" dates of June 7-28, 2002. This includes meat containing 73 percent, 80 percent, 90 percent and 93 percent lean fat and ground sirloin.
Refund: Full product or proof of purchase.
Whom to call: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 800-535-4555, between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.
"We nearly lost her," said Marcel Rodriguez as he held his daughter's tiny hand Thursday at Children's Hospital. "All she ate was a meatball."
Parents of other children also expressed concern about the safety of their food.
"It makes me outraged that, very easily, a hamburger could have killed Alec," said Lisa Scannell, whose 4-year-old son was hospitalized for 13 days. The boy, who turns 5 on Saturday, nearly died and may have suffered serious damage to his kidneys, Scannell said.
A ConAgra spokesman said the company hired two specialists to help review sanitation and slaughter procedures at the Greeley facility, where more than 3,000 head of cattle are killed and processed daily.
Only about 6,000 pounds of the 354,000 pounds of recalled beef has been recovered, spokesman Jim Herlihy said, noting that the rest likely has been eaten.
"It's our hope the number of people who become ill doesn't change, and we're gratified those with illness apparently are improving," he said.
It's unclear how many states are affected by the recall, a ConAgra spokesman said, as wholesale companies could buy the product, regrind and repackage it, then resell it. Those businesses could have included grocery stores, restaurants, or institutions such as hospitals or government offices.
Health department officials in Washington and New York said they're checking several cases of E. coli to see if they are related to the ConAgra meat.
Health officials in Washington state said Thursday that at least one case of E. coli-related illness appears to match the strain that's hit Colorado, but further tests are being done, spokesman Donn Moyer said.
In Colorado, nine of 12 confirmed illnesses were linked to meat purchased at Safeway stores, state health officials said. The company last week said recalled meat had been sold at its stores in Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota.
Safeway said it will not buy ground beef from ConAgra until the Greeley company works its problems out with state health officials and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency responsible for inspecting meat produced at the plant, Safeway spokesman Jeff Stroh said.
The grocery chain also expanded the number of ground beef products it was pulling from store shelves, Stroh said. That's because the store's original determination that it had sold or frozen about 40,000 pounds of the recalled ground beef was underestimated.
"We just looked at the product in the store at that time and how things could have become mingled (in) the grinding sequence," Stroh said. "When we added all the things up, we decided to err on the side of caution."
The recall affects 140 Safeway stores in Wyoming, western Nebraska, Rapid City, S.D., northern New Mexico, and Colorado, Stroh said.
Stroh said all ground beef currently on Safeway shelves is fine.
Other large grocery chains in Colorado appear unaffected.
Colorado health officials are investigating two new reported cases of E. coli-related illnesses, according to epidemiologist Pam Shillam. It's unclear whether the victims in those cases - a Denver man and an Otero County woman - ate any of the recalled ground beef.
Health officials have determined that two of 11 cases under review were not related to the recall.
David Migoya can be reached at email@example.com or 303-820-1506.