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Kroger recalls ground beef over E. coli fears; 32 stricken in Ohio, Michigan

Faced with an E. coli outbreak that caused dozens of illnesses in Michigan and Ohio over the last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced yesterday that the Kroger Co. is recalling all ground beef sold in its Toledo-area grocery stores over a 2 1/2 week span.

The recall for ground beef sold between May 21 and June 8 also includes all stores in Michigan and the Columbus area.

USDA spokesman Amanda Eamich said the agency doesn't know how much meat is being recalled and Kroger representatives did not return phone calls regarding the figure.

Though none of the meat remains on store shelves, the USDA urged people who still have ground beef bought during that time period to discard it or bring it to a Kroger store for a refund.

The recall stems from an outbreak between May 30 and June 11, when at least 32 people in Ohio and Michigan became sick with an identical strain of E. coli. The Centers for Disease Control determined that they had all been infected by bacteria with the same genetic fingerprint, meaning the bacteria came from a common source - in this case, mostly meat sold at Kroger.

The bacteria came from the O157:H7 strain, which causes most food-borne outbreaks, according to a CDC report.

James McCurtis, Jr., a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Community Health, said 8 of the 15 people confirmed ill in Michigan with the E. coli strain reported having eaten ground beef purchased at Kroger.

Ohio Department of Health spokesman Kristopher Weiss said a sample of meat submitted by someone who became ill after eating ground beef from a Columbus-area Kroger Marketplace store was found to contain the same strain of E. coli that had caused illnesses in both Ohio and Michigan. It established that at least some of the contaminated meat came from Kroger.

Most of the 17 confirmed cases in Ohio are in the Columbus area, but one person fell ill in both Lucas and Seneca counties, pushing the USDA to expand the recall to Toledo-area stores. There are two more people with E. coli in the Columbus area who are suspected to be infected with the same strain, but tests have not confirmed that yet, Mr. Weiss said.

The 15 cases in Michigan were spread throughout central and southeast Michigan. Tests showed that a previously reported E. coli case in Monroe County was from a different strain.

Kroger cooperated with investigators looking into the source of the outbreak, state and federal officials said.

Gina Nicholson, the food safety manager of Kroger’s Columbus division, said the store issued a consumer health advisory earlier this week to warn customers about the possible outbreak. The alert was displayed at the customer service counter and meat counter of Kroger stores in the affected region, she said.

At the Kroger store on East Manhattan Boulevard in Toledo yesterday, the case holding ground beef displayed a sheet of paper offering customers tips on safely cooking meat. It was next to a flyer advertising five-pound packages of fresh ground chuck for $1.99 a pound.

The real number of people infected with E. coli during the outbreak could be significantly higher, because many people with milder symptoms never seek treatment.

Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in E. coli litigation, said it took the USDA and Kroger too long to announce the recall. He said it’s rare for this many people to get sick before the announcement of a recall.

“They have certainly known for days, if not a week, that the epidemiological evidence was very strong that it was hamburger,” he said. “They should have done everything they could to get these products off the market.”

Ron Walczak of Toledo, a Kroger customer, said he’s concerned about the E. coli outbreak and the quality of meat sold in grocery stores.

Mr. Walczak said he used to enjoy his beef rare, occasionally eating it raw. Now, because of the risk of contamination, his wife won’t let him, he said.

“If I get a hamburger in a restaurant and it’s half-cooked, I send it back,” he said.

Kay Grimmett, who shopped at Kroger yesterday, said she wasn’t concerned about the outbreak because she cooks her meat well done. She said she doesn’t intend to return the ten pounds of ground beef in her freezer.

“I’ve been eating Kroger’s ground beef for years,” she said. “I’m not afraid to use it.”

According to a CDC report Tuesday, 14 people have been hospitalized during the outbreak. One patient has developed a condition called hemolytic-uremic syndrome, which can lead to kidney failure. No deaths have been reported.

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