State

Feds trying to find source of Modesto WinCo's bad beef

Government agencies are investigating the source of contaminated ground beef sold at the WinCo Foods store in Modesto.

WinCo issued a voluntary recall of all ground beef products sold in plastic trays at the store from April 3 through Friday, after a food-testing laboratory advised WinCo on Friday that two samples of hamburger purchased from the store were tainted with E. coli bacteria.

Stanislaus County health officials said Monday they were not aware of anyone becoming sick from eating meat purchased from the WinCo store on Plaza Parkway.

Infection with E. coli often causes abdominal cramps and diarrhea, sometimes with bloody stool. The symptoms usually go away in five to 10 days, but the infection leads to kidney damage or even death in a small percentage of cases. Young children and the elderly are at highest risk of serious illness.

The contamination was in a single beef product that originates from a meat processing facility outside of California, according to a statement from Robert Schlag, chief of the food, drug and radiation safety division of the California Department of Public Health. The agency did not identify the meat supplier.

State health officials are investigating the contamination with the Stanislaus County Department of Environmental Resources and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"USDA has been advised of the identified supplier of beef and would be responsible for any follow-up at the meat processing facility," Schlag said.

State and county officials conducted inspections of the WinCo store Saturday to scrutinize its meat packaging and sanitation practices. The store was not cited for any food-safety violations.

Customers who bought ground beef at the store last week are advised to destroy the meat or return it to the store for a refund. Anyone with symptoms should consult their physician.

The store sold 2,352 pounds of ground beef from April 3 through Friday, said Sonya Harrigfeld, the county's environmental resources director.

The contamination was in lean beef that was ground and repackaged at the store, Harrigfeld said. The bacteria, which lives in the intestines of cattle, can contaminate meat during slaughtering or initial processing. The contamination also can occur when ground beef is handled in the store.

Store took fast action

WinCo said as soon as it was notified by IEH Laboratories & Consulting Group, it pulled all ground beef products at the store. It immediately took apart and sanitized the processing equipment at the Modesto outlet.

To notify the public, the company posted signs in English and Spanish inside the store and sent a news release throughout the West on Saturday, although most media outlets didn't pick it up until Monday. It hired an independent lab to run tests on the remaining meat and the packaging area in the store over the weekend.

The test results Monday showed no contamination, a WinCo spokesman said.

This food safety recall is different than others -- it was not initiated by a government agency or a meat supplier.

WinCo said it was contacted Friday by Seattle-based IEH, a microbiology lab involved with an independently funded survey of ground beef sold in supermarkets.

The Bee learned that an influential law firm hired IEH to conduct the testing for the nationwide survey, which involves testing ground beef for different forms of E. coli. The Seattle-based firm, Marler Clark, has represented numerous clients in food-borne illness lawsuits against restaurants and food companies.

Someone participating in the survey bought the hamburger at the WinCo store and the meat was sent to the lab for testing.

"It was out of the blue," said Michael Read, vice president of public and legal affairs for WinCo. "We don't know if it was true or not. We did get the lab to share their test results with us. ... Out of an abundance of caution, we decided to pull all the beef from the store" and issue the recall.

The recall signs do not mention E. coli. Unlike other big-box stores, WinCo does not require a club card, so there was no quick way to determine who bought the ground beef.

Some shoppers Monday said they hadn't heard about the recall and had not seen the signs posted in the meat department.

The government agencies want to review the IEH lab results and obtain part of the test samples for additional testing.

Dr. Mansour Samadpour, president of IEH, said the lab would cooperate with the government agencies and had been contacted by the USDA.

The national survey aims to show the extent of ground beef contamination by unregulated forms of E. coli., Samadpour said. Food safety laws cover only certain forms of the enterohemorrhagic strain of E. coli, which causes illness when people eat undercooked ground beef.

The two-year survey, which is nearly completed, has involved 5,000 samples. The WinCo meat samples were tainted with common E. coli 0157:H7 and the lab had an ethical duty to inform the store chain, Samadpour said.

"To their credit, they swiftly took action," he said.

Marler Clark was involved with representing a Fresno girl who became seriously ill with an E. coli infection after visiting the Big Fresno Fair petting zoo in 2005. The fair agreed in March to pay $2.2 million to settle the case.

The girl, now 6, suffered strokes and kidney failure leading to dialysis, as well as permanent effects to her motor skills, The Fresno Bee reported.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at 578-2321 or kcarlson@modbee.com.

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