Washington In the second-largest meat recall in U.S. history, a Colorado company asked Americans nationwide Friday to check their refrigerators, stores and backyard grills and destroy 19 million pounds of hamburger meat because of E. coli concerns.
Seventeen people in Colorado already have gotten sick from beef provided by ConAgra Beef Co. of Greeley, Colo. At least six other cases of E. coli-caused illnesses have been reported in California, Michigan, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming, but none of those cases have been linked yet to the ConAgra beef.
Company officials and the Agriculture Department warned hamburger-loving Americans to be on the lookout for the affected meat, which has been on the market since April and could have been sold under several brand names. The labels on all the recalled products bear the code "EST. 969" inside the USDA seal of inspection; the complete list of recalled products is on the Web site of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
The beef should be returned to the place of purchase. Consumers of ground beef should always cook it to 160 degrees in the center to kill E. coli, health officials say.
ConAgra's facility in Colorado provides beef to grocery store chains, independent grocery stores, food service operators and restaurant owners.
Late last month, ConAgra recalled 354,000 pounds of fresh and frozen ground beef products because of E. coli concerns, and insisted only that batch had been linked definitely to the bacterium.
But ConAgra spokesman Jim Herlihy said Friday that the company wanted to err on the side of caution.
"We want to be absolutely certain there's no opportunity that this product could be affected," Herlihy said. "We have no specific reason to believe it is, we're just taking extra precaution so consumers don't have any concerns about the product they buy."
Added Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman: "This action is being taken as a cautionary measure to ensure the protection of public health."
Herlihy said ConAgra could not say exactly what brand names the meat has been sold under. "So many of our customers are wholesalers who distribute to customers of their own," he said. "We don't control that customer list."
Americans ate 69.5 pounds of beef per person in 2000, reflecting steady but modest increases since 1993, when consumption fell to 65.1 pounds, officials said.
The Agriculture Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that 16 people have been diagnosed with E. coli from the tainted meat in Colorado. The Colorado Health Department said a 17th person also fell ill from ConAgra meat. Federal and state agencies reported Friday that more infections are showing up that could be linked to contaminated ConAgra meat.
The 19 million pounds of meat were produced between April 12 and July 11, officials said.
ConAgra is cooperating with the Agriculture Department.
Veneman, asked if the department will cite the company for violations, said a government investigation at the plant is continuing.
No E. coli has been found at the Greeley plant since July 11, said Elsa Murano, the undersecretary for food safety.
The largest meat recall in U.S. history was in 1997, when Hudson Foods recalled 25 million pounds of ground beef after 15 people in Colorado fell ill from E. coli after eating hamburger from its plant in Columbus, Neb.