S&S Foods of Azusa, Calif., is recalling 30-pound boxes of ground beef that went to distribution centers in Milwaukee and Allentown, Pa. The company is acting on the recommendation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, agency spokeswoman Laura Reiser said yesterday.
The meat was intended for food service companies and institutions and was not being sold in stores, Reiser said. The Agriculture Department would not say where the beef might have gone, she said. "From a public health standpoint, that's not going to help the consumer or the doctor to treat their illness," she said.
In a statement, S&S Foods officials said: "Acting with an abundance of caution, we are recalling the product from distribution channels until we can determine whether illnesses in Virginia are connected to our operations or have some other original source or cause. We wish to express our sympathy to those taken ill and we are working diligently to correct the situation."
Reiser said S&S Foods provided the beef products to Cargill, a Minneapolis-based company. A spokeswoman for Cargill said the meat was distributed to a single food service customer, whose name she declined to release, at the Milwaukee and Allentown centers.
Sodexo, the camp's food service provider, gets its food from SYSCO, said Jaya Bohlmann, a spokeswoman for Sodexo. Bohlmann said an alert was sent to Sodexo's 6,000 accounts in North America on Sunday and again Wednesday night to discontinue use of meat from the recalled batch, but she said it was unknown how many locations had the meat in stock.
It was unclear whether other parties were involved in the meat's distribution.
The Food Safety and Inspection Service designated the recall "Class I," meaning "there is a reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death," the agency Web site states. The meat could contain E. Coli O157:H7, a toxin-producing strain of bacteria, officials said.
Reiser said the only known E. Coli cases connected to the meat are from the camp. State health officials said there are 25 confirmed cases among people who attended camp between July 20 and 26. Two campers who attended last week were also infected, and more than 80 people have shown symptoms since the outbreak, said Christopher Novak, an epidemiologist with the Virginia Department of Health.
At least one Scout, a Northern Virginia resident, remains hospitalized with hemolytic uremic syndrome, a complication that can occur when the E. coli toxin enters the bloodstream and that can lead to kidney failure, Novak said.
A box of meat from the Goshen Scout Reservation, near Lexington, had an "establishment number" corresponding to an S&S plant, Reiser said, and E. coli in the meat has been genetically matched to bacteria found in samples taken from some campers. That and other evidence led the agency to recommend the recall, Reiser said.
"Virginia tested products and provided us the information, and then we have our illness investigation, and between all that, we can say, 'Yes, these illnesses [at Goshen] are associated with this product," Reiser said.
J. Michael McMahan, an environmental health supervisor with the state Health Department, said Virginia health officials obtained the box of meat July 28, one day after the department first received reports of ill campers.
"In this case, we got extremely lucky that we got a box of product left we could test," McMahan said. "That's really fairly unusual in an outbreak."
The Food Safety and Inspection Service said an investigation is continuing into the meat's contamination and distribution. However, because the meat was not sold in stores, the agency will not, as a matter of policy, release a list of the places to which it was distributed, Reiser said.
"Because [consumers] can't buy this in the retail store, that's one of the reasons we don't provide the specific information," she said.
Asked whether the agency would alert all the institutions that received recalled meat, Reiser wrote in an e-mail, "We will be following up to make sure they were contacted by whichever company provided the product."
E. coli contamination can occur in beef during the slaughter and packing process, experts said. The bacteria are found on the animals' hides and in their intestines, and when meat is ground and mixed, supplies can become tainted.
Alan Lambert, Scout executive for the Boy Scouts of America's National Capital Area Council, said that he was pleased to hear of the recall and that he hoped it had come in time to prevent further infections.
"We're real happy that they found the source of this, and we hope that it hasn't caused anybody else the pain we've seen with our Scouts," Lambert said. "And we hope they recalled it fast enough."
Virginia health officials said this week that tainted beef was high on the list of possible sources of the outbreak, even as they continued to scour the camp for other possible sources. Lab tests found no contamination in the camp's water. One theory being explored is that partially frozen raw ground beef was handed out to campers to cook themselves and was not cooked well enough to kill harmful bacteria.
Novak said that in his experience, it is often difficult to lay blame for a food-borne outbreak in any one place. The meat might have been contaminated in a slaughterhouse, improperly refrigerated during distribution and then undercooked by the consumer. All of those things would contribute to illness.
"In every situation, you sort of have to say, 'Could this have been avoided?' " he said. "Perhaps. But unless someone wants to live in a plastic bubble, it's sort of impossible to eliminate all risk."
McMahan put it another way: Consumers should just assume meat has pathogens and cook it accordingly, to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
"It's unrealistic to think that raw animal products are going to be sterile," McMahan said. "You have to assume there are bugs in them."
At least 5.58 million pounds of meat have been recalled this year because of E. coli contamination, Reiser said.