Also Monday, federal inspectors announced that they will make a simple change in the way they notify meat suppliers after they have detected contaminated meat. A two-week delay in the notification process has been blamed for the severity of the ConAgra contamination, and federal officials say the change may prevent E. coli outbreaks like the one in Colorado.
In response to the outbreak, federal inspectors will now notify meat suppliers like ConAgra Beef Co. immediately when E. coli is detected in a downstream processing facility, according to a statement released Monday by the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"This will allow all the suppliers to take proactive steps without waiting for the results from the FSIS investigation," the statement read.
Inspectors will notify suppliers verbally and in writing.
"We'd certainly like to get that notice as early as possible," ConAgra spokesman Jim Herlihy said.
Federal inspectors detected E. coli in a Denver processing facility on June 19, according to the statement. Although they suspected ConAgra beef to be tainted, they did not notify the company until a full investigation of all possible sources of the pathogen was completed - nearly two weeks after the initial discovery.
The Denver facility's production was held and no tainted meat from that facility was allowed to reach customers. In the meantime, however, ConAgra sold meat to other meat processors, such as Safeway. By the end, tainted ConAgra meat found its way to 10 states.
The FSIS has also sent an investigation team to ConAgra's Greeley plant.
In Colorado, 17 people, ranging from 1-72 years old, have been sickened, along with one 7-year-old boy who became sick in South Dakota. It is the most number of people in Colorado who have been sickened from E. coli since a 1997 outbreak.
The weekend tests matched the DNA fingerprints of specimens from 18 E. coli victims with a hamburger sample obtained from the plant by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said Monday in a press release. The tests were conducted at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laboratory in Atlanta.
Eight more cases related to the outbreak are awaiting final confirmation at a state laboratory. So far, nobody from Weld County has become sick.
In a press release Monday evening, ConAgra said it has taken steps to address the needs of consumers:
The company retained two industry experts to ensure meat produced at the Greeley plant is safe. They arrived late last week.
ConAgra is "... reaching to affected individuals and families to provide assistance."
"We just want to get the message out to these folks," Herlihy said. "We want to be able to talk to them and find out what they have experienced, if they have had excessive medical expenses."
It was premature to say what ConAgra would do, he said.
A Seattle lawyer representing the families of 10 victims is planning to meet with ConAgra Beef Co. representatives later this week.
"My hope is that once some of the preliminary concerns of the genetic fingerprinting get resolved, ConAgra will do the right thing," said Bill Marler of Marler Clark Attorneys at Law in Seattle. Marler, who has represented E. coli victims in other states, said ConAgra will likely double-check the results of the CDC tests using industry experts.
"Inspectors have been known in the past to make errors," he said. "Although in this case, given the numbers, I think the genetic testing is correct."
ConAgra recalled 345,000 pounds of meat June 30 after it was notified a sample of its meat tested positive for E. coli. About 40,000 pounds of it went to Safeway stores, which sold the meat in five states.
The next day, Safeway recalled all meat sold between June 6-28. Safeway has also suspended the purchase of ground beef from ConAgra until it can be assured it's safe, according to spokesman Jeff Stroh.
"Our first concern is for the individuals and families, and second we're concerned about the thousands of customers inconvenienced with this," he said.
"In many cases, we're a victim in this also, although not to the extent of those who became ill," Stroh said.
Herlihy said ConAgra has not issued an E. coli-generated recall in the five years since the company has used its proprietary carcass Multiple Hurdle Intervention System, which reduces pathogenic bacteria by more than 99 percent.