msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 4/30/2004 1:40:12 PM ET 2004-04-30T17:40:12

A Midwestern meatpacker said it was recalling 45,030 pounds of ground beef because it may contain harmful E. coli.

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Wichita, Kan.-based Exel Corp. said Thursday that it packaged the ground beef in 10-pound cylindrical tubes with a use or freeze by date of April 29, but the meat likely was repackaged by retail stores.

The meat, which was produced at Excel’s Dodge City plant, was sold to distributors in Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Texas.

Excel said it tested the meat earlier this month and it was negative for E. coli. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture told Excel this week that beef reground at a business had tested positive for E. coli.

Excel said no illnesses have been associated with the beef and most of it probably has been eaten.

The meatpackers suggested consumers ask their grocers if ground beef they sold is involved in the recall. The company also established a hotline, 1-800-267-6946.

Fewer food-borne illnesses
Separately, federal officials said that fewer people are being sickened by food-borne illnesses such as E. coli bacteria partly because of improved testing and meat process.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's FoodNet surveillance system said data showed there were 443 laboratory-confirmed cases of Escherichia coli O157 reported in 2003, 36 percent less than in the previous year.

The number of Campylobacter, Salmonella and Yersinia infections -- three of the most common food-borne diseases -- also continued to decline last year.

“The overall trends for these important infections suggests that the efforts by industry, individuals and the regulatory arena seem to have us headed in the right direction,” said Dr. Robert Tauxe, chief of the CDC’s food-borne diseases branch.

An estimated 76 million people in the United States become sick each year after eating undercooked meat, eggs and shellfish, unpasteurized dairy products and other foods containing bacteria.

Symptoms typically include diarrhea, cramping and nausea. Most people recover without hospitalization, but some, usually the elderly and young children, can develop anemia and kidney failure leading to death.

The drop in human cases of many food-borne infections follows efforts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to strengthen inspections and press producers of meat, eggs, seafood and other foods to adopt new technologies.

In 2002, the USDA notified manufacturers of raw ground beef that they must reassess their procedures to ensure that products were free of E. coli O157. Many beef processors now refuse to distribute ground beef unless tests are negative.

But the government’s good news was partly offset by data showing that the incidence of Listeria, Shigella and several strains of Salmonella did not change significantly between 1996 and 2003.

Children also continue to suffer from food-borne illnesses at a disproportionately higher rate than other groups.

Some consumer advocates said too positive a spin was being put on the data and urged the government to take stronger steps to clamp down on food producers, especially in the meat industry.

“USDA should require all companies to test and hold all of their ground beef for E. coli if we want to see any sustained drop in this pathogen,” said Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Food Policy Institute of the Consumer Federation of America.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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