ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) — Contaminated fresh ground beef caused a possible E. coli outbreak that killed two people and sent 16 others to hospitals, federal health officials said Monday.
Twenty-eight people may have become ill after eating beef produced by Fairbank Farms of Ashville, N.Y., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. All but three of the suspected infections are in the northeastern U.S. and 18 are in New England, said CDC spokeswoman Lola Scott Russell.
Fairbank Farms recalled almost 546,000 pounds of fresh ground beef that had been distributed in September to stores from North Carolina to Maine. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's recall notice, dated Saturday, said the possibly tainted meat had been sold in numerous ways, from meatloaf and meatball mix to hamburger patties.
One of the deaths was an adult from Albany County, N.Y., who had several underlying health conditions, according to the state Health Department. The other fatality was previously reported by New Hampshire, where health officials said a patient died of complications.
The CDC did not specify the states where people were hospitalized. Kidney failure is found in the most severe cases of E. coli. In less serious cases, the potentially deadly bacterium can cause bloody diarrhea and dehydration.
Some of the ground beef was sold at Trader Joe's, Price Chopper, Lancaster, Wild Harvest, Shaw's, BJ's, Ford Brothers and Giant stores in packages that carried the number "EST. 492" on the label. Those products were packaged Sept. 15-16 and may have been labeled with a sell-by date from Sept. 19 through Sept. 28, meaning they're no longer being sold as fresh product in supermarkets, Fairbank Farms said.
The rest of the ground beef, packaged in wholesale-sized containers under the Fairbank Farms name, was distributed to stores in Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. That meat was likely repackaged for sale and would likely have differing package and sell-by dates.
The USDA was urging customers with concerns to contact the stores where they bought the meat.
Ron Allen, Fairbank's CEO, urged consumers to check their freezers for the recalled ground beef.
Companies subject to such recalls are allowed to cook tainted meat to kill the bacteria and then use it in other products, a common practice in the food industry.
That won't happen in this case, the company said.
"At the end of the day, this product ... is going in the garbage," said company spokeswoman Agi Schafer.
Located in the southwestern corner of New York a few miles from the Pennsylvania line, Fairbank Farms has had two other voluntary recalls over the last two years, according to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
In September 2007, the company recalled 884 pounds of ground beef products because they may have been contaminated with E. coli, the agency said. And in May 2008, it recalled 22,481 pounds of ground beef products that may have contained pieces of plastic.
Symptoms of E. coli infections usually show up three to four days after a person eats contaminated food, although in some cases it can be as long as eight days. Officials said anyone having symptoms should immediately contact a doctor.
In an unrelated case, Elton John has been hospitalized in London after suffering from a case of E. coli bacterial infection and the flu, his spokesman said Monday.
Gary Farrow said the pop star hopes to be released soon but has been forced to cancel concerts in England, Ireland and the United States.
John intends to rejoin the "Face2Face" tour later in the month when he and Billy Joel play concerts in northern California.
Farrow said 62-year-old John is suffering from a "bad case of the flu and a minor case of E. coli." His Web site says he was advised by his doctor to postpone dates in Seattle and Portland.
The Daily Mail's Web site quoted John's partner, David Furnish, as saying "He's OK — he's fine," after leaving a London hospital.
Farrow says the singer has rescheduled previously canceled dates during the European leg of his world tour.