Cargill Inc. is recalling more than 132,600 pounds of ground beef possibly contaminated with harmful E. coli bacteria that food-safety investigators believe has already caused 17 illnesses and one death.
The beef originated at a Cargill slaughterhouse in Fort Morgan, Colo., the same site linked to another potential E. coli contamination that prompted a recall of 25,000 pounds of ground beef four weeks ago.
In mid-August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) food-safety division and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began investigating a potential E. coli outbreak, with cases predominantly in Florida, that led to Publix Super Markets recalling ground beef products sold at its stores.
The USDA and CDC eventually traced the E. coli contamination to beef shipped from Cargill's Fort Morgan plant as "the probable source of the reported illnesses." That determination led to Cargill's latest recall, announced late Wednesday night.
The beef products in question were produced and packaged on June 21 and bear the plant identification number "EST. 86R," which can be found inside the USDA inspection mark on the outside of the package.
"We were distressed to learn a fatality may be related to an E.coli contamination of one of our products," Cargill said in a statement. "Our hearts go out to the families and individuals affected."
Cargill went on to say it is opening up its Fort Morgan plant to investigative teams, both internal and external, to review its processes.
"Food safety is something we work hard at every day," the company said. "We are working in lockstep with the USDA to notify consumers," noting the current list of affected products is available on the USDA's recall website.
USDA investigators and Cargill are concerned that contaminated products may remain in consumers' freezers. The products were shipped nationally.
Most types of E. coli are harmless, living within the intestines of both humans and animals. But several strains are pathogenic and pose serious human health risks.
The USDA identified the August recall of beef produced at Cargill's Fort Morgan plant as E. coli 0157. Wednesday, the federal agency identified this second recall as E. coli 026.
Both strains can cause similar illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
People usually become sick within a week of consuming contaminated foods. Most people develop diarrhea, often bloody, and vomiting. Some infections are more severe, with people developing a type of kidney failure.
The company hasn't had a food-borne outbreak since 40 people were sickened by salmonella in its ground beef products six years ago. Bill Marler, a well-known food safety lawyer who is representing four people suing Cargill over this new E. coli outbreak, said he expects the number of people affected will grow.
"Honestly, Cargill has tried to be a leader in food safety. E. coli outbreaks linked to its product has been rare and it has recalled salmonella-tainted product when it legally was not required to do so," Marler said. "That is what makes this outbreak and recall both tragic and disappointing."