The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has expanded a June 30 recall of Nebraska Beef products after an outbreak of E. coli in the Midwest, and now says tainted meat and trimmings could be in other products that don't bear markings consumers can check.
The packaging of potentially tainted meat bears the marking 'EST 19336.' But some of that 5.3 million pounds of beef products from the Omaha company "were further processed into ground beef at other firms and will likely not bear [ that number]," according to a Thursday USDA news release.
USDA spokesman Roger Sockman said investigators traced the meat back to Nebraska Beef after finding two samples of beef that tested positive for E. coli at processing plants that bought meat from Nebraska Beef.
The USDA did not provide a list of where the additional recalled meat may have ended up but suggests all consumers cook ground beef to an internal temperature of 160 degrees — high enough to kill E. coli 0157:H7 and other harmful bacteria.
An investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and health officials in Michigan and Ohio has determined that at least 40 illnesses reported between May 31 and June 8 in those states are associated with Nebraska Beef ground-beef products. Of those, 21 cases required hospitalization.
No illnesses associated with the ground-beef recall have been reported in Washington, said Donn Moyer, spokesman for the state Department of Health.
Affected meat from the initial recall, which was sold at Kroger-owned stores, including Fred Meyer, already is off shelves, and customers have been alerted to toss or return any found in fridges or freezers.
Earlier this week Kroger, which also owns QFC supermarkets, issued a nationwide recall of Nebraska Beef products and other products that may have come into contact with the affected beef.
QFC stores do not carry meat from Nebraska Beef, but the chain is recalling items that may have come in contact with potentially contaminated ground beef or equipment at a grinding facility, QFC spokeswoman Kristin Maas said.
Customers may return the products for a full refund or replacement.
Kroger stores will use ground beef from other suppliers while USDA authorities try to determine how the meat at Nebraska Beef became contaminated, Fred Meyer spokeswoman Melinda Merrill said.
Tracking contaminated food is a growing challenge as supply becomes increasingly global and industrialized, said Catherine Donnelly, a professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Vermont.
Commercial meat grinders typically combine beef from many cattle, she said, making it difficult to track just what beef made it into what product.
The Food and Drug Administration still is hunting for the source of a salmonella outbreak in fresh tomatoes that has sickened more than 800 people across the country in recent months.
While there's no official word on how to avoid contaminated meat, one option is to ask your supermarket or butcher where they buy their beef, food-safety experts say. Some area meat markets grind their own locally raised beef in house.
The USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline provides many food-safety tips and answers questions at 888-674-6854. Visit www.fsis.usda.gov/FactSheets/Foodborne_Illness_Peaks_in_Summer/index.asp for tips on how to avoid food-borne illness at home.