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ConAgra Recalls 19 Million Pounds of Beef Products
After 16 People Report Illnesses

THOMAS M. BURTON and JILL CARROLL / Wall Street Journal 22jul02

ConAgra Foods Inc. recalled 19 million pounds of ground beef and beef products nationwide after at least 16 people became ill with E. coli bacteria-related diseases from eating meat packaged at the company's Colorado plant.

In one of the biggest food recalls ever, the Omaha food company issued the expanded version of what two weeks ago had been a rather modest recall of 354,200 pounds of ground beef. On June 19, federal meat inspectors detected the deadly bacteria in meat products at a Denver processing plant supplied by, among others, the ConAgra meatpacking facility in Greelel, Colo.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said the latest action was being taken as a "precautionary measure" and added federal inspectors are at ConAgra's Colorado facility trying to find out how the contaminated meat was released.

Elsa Murano, the Agriculture Department's undersecretary for food safety, said the federal agency should have contacted ConAgra and other meatpacking operations June 19 about finding bacterial contamination in packed meat.

"That would have been a good thing in retrospect," she said. "From now on, we will do that." She said initially, federal inspectors didn't know the ConAgra facility was the source of the contaminated meat.

The bacteria, technically called E. coli O157:H7, are bugs found in the intestinal tracts of cattle. The bacteria can fairly easily contaminate hamburger, in particular when cattle intestines get nicked in the slaughtering process. When eaten, the contaminated hamburger can cause potentially lethal illnesses involving, among other things, severe cramps and bloody diarrhea. In this episode, no deaths have been reported but some people in the Denver area were hospitalized.

In May, ConAgra agreed to sell a 54% stake of its meatpacking business for $950 million in cash and equity to an investor group including Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst Inc. in Dallas. Officials of Hicks Muse didn't respond to questions about whether the recall would affect the transaction. ConAgra officials didn't return phone calls.

The latest recall covers meat processed at the Greeley plant between April 12 and July 11. The department encourages people with questions about meat they have purchased to call its hotline, 800-535-4555.

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