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Merced firm recalls beef after E. coli outbreak

Apr 22, 2007 | San Francisco Chronicle A Merced beef processor has recalled about 100,000 pounds of frozen beef because three Napa children fell ill with E. coli after eating hamburgers at two Little League concession stands, officials said Saturday.

The frozen hamburger patties were produced between April and May 2006 by Richwood Meat Co. and distributed in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Arizona.

Karen Smith, Napa County's health officer, said the food poisoning was reported April 3 and 4. The children became sick with E. coli, a bacterium associated with fecal contamination, after eating hamburgers at the St. Helena and Calistoga Little League fields.

A physician from Kaiser-Permanente identified the bacteria in the stool sample of a 9-year-old boy.

Theresa Richmond, a spokeswoman for the Napa County Health and Human Services Division, said two other cases were being investigated.

"One was a teammate (of the three children with confirmed E. coli infections) and the other was a sibling," Richmond said.

The two suspect cases had symptoms consistent with E. coli infections, she said. All the children have recovered fully.

The items under recall are hamburger patties and ground beef products sold under the brands Fireriver, Chef's Pride, Ritz Food, Blackwood Farms, California Pacific Associates, C&C Distributing, Golbon and Richwood. Health officials said consumers should destroy any recalled products they have or return them to the place of purchase.

Under no circumstances should the meat be consumed, said Richmond.

"It doesn't matter if you cook it to a cinder," she said. "It has to be considered unsafe. Throw it away."

Steve Wood, the vice president of Richwood Meat, said health authorities had identified E. coli in the recalled patties.

"We haven't received confirmation yet that the strain (of bacterium) in the meat was the same strain identified from the children's tests," he said.

The bacterium isolated from the Napa incidents was E. coli 0157:H7. Like all bacteria, E. coli manifests as a vast complex of different strains.

E. coli infection can exert a wide array of effects, from no overt symptoms to renal failure and death. Gastric distress and diarrhea are the most common symptoms.

Steve Rich, the chief of family medicine at Kaiser's Santa Rosa complex, said the elderly, the young and those with compromised immune symptoms are most at risk.

"Many people show no symptoms, but some become extremely ill," Rich said. "It can kill you."

Rich said it is unusual for the infection to be diagnosed.

"It's relatively rare," he said. "I've never diagnosed it."

Incidents of E. coli infections occur sporadically, but an outbreak in September linked to Salinas Valley spinach that resulted in three deaths has made American consumers hypersensitive to the subject.

"When cases do occur, it can have a profound effect," Rich said. "The media have become so pervasive through the Internet and other sources that news of an outbreak can cause panic. It can shake people's faith in their food supply."

Wood said he has been fielding hundreds of calls from concerned consumers.

"I've pretty much been here 24/7 answering the phone," he said. "We just want to put people at ease."

There have been no incidents of illness other than the ones already reported, Wood said, and no one who has called in possessed products with the recall dates.

Richmond said authorities believe all the suspect meat in Napa County has been secured roughly 120 pounds.

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