Victims seek up to $50 mln in ConAgra meat case

CHICAGO - Some victims sickened by an E. coli outbreak linked to ground beef processed by ConAgra Foods Inc. are seeking up to $50 million in settlements with the company, their attorney said on Tuesday.

In July, ConAgra recalled nearly 19 million pounds of ground beef in the second-largest ground beef recall in U.S. history. According to published reports, health officials in 23 states have linked the beef to illnesses in 47 people.

ConAgra's Greeley Colorado-based meat unit, ConAgra Beef Co., and attorneys from the Seattle-based law firm Marler Clark will head to mediation in December to attempt to settle on damages.

"I think the goal is to reach fair compensation for what our clients' went through and to do it as quickly as possible," said Denis Stearns, a partner with Marler Clark, which specializes in cases involving food-borne illnesses.

The firm represents more than 30 people who were sickened by the outbreak, he said.

"We are pursuing the mediation process," said ConAgra Foods spokesman Chris Kircher. He declined to discuss details on the matter.

Mediation is an attempt to settle a dispute out of court. Unlike arbitration, it is not binding.

To date, no lawsuits have been filed on behalf of the victims, Stearns said.

In September, ConAgra completed the sale of the majority of its fresh meat business to a venture led by private investment group Hicks Muse Tate & Furst Inc. The closing was temporarily delayed in July by the buyers after the recall.

The recall was the second-largest after a 1997 recall of 25 million pounds of hamburger patties processed by Hudson Foods Co.

Shares of ConAgra were up 9 cents at $24.87 in New York Stock Exchange trading on Tuesday.