ALBANY, N.Y. -- Eleven cases of E. coli-related illness have been traced back to four different Grand Union stores in upstate New York, an official of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets confirmed.
"About two weeks ago, [the Health Department] finished studying 12 cases of E. coli, which had occurred mostly in the Hudson Valley around Poughkeepsie and over around Oneonta," the official, Gerald Moore, told SN last week.
"They concluded that the common denominator in 11 of these cases was that they all had eaten ground beef from four Grand Union stores," Moore said.
"The cases themselves are confirmed in the sense that we know that these people have E. coli 0157-H7, the same stuff that killed those kids out in Washington a couple of years ago," Moore said.
Four of the consumers who were struck ill in upstate New York were hospitalized. All have since recovered, Moore said. No further cases have been reported, he added.
Calls seeking comment from Grand Union at the chain's headquarters in Wayne, N.J., were not returned.
Moore said the contaminated meat included 75%, 85% and 90% lean ground beef as well as chopped sirloin. The meat was purchased between June 30 and Aug. 5, 1995.
Moore said the consumers who became ill had bought the meat in question at Grand Union meat departments in Apple Valley, Hyde Park, Oneonta and Kingston. He cautioned, however, that the incidents of illness apparently had little to do with the operations or sanitation levels at the stores themselves.
"The meat came through their central distribution system, so those stores just happened to be the ones that got it, or where the illnesses were traced back," he
The original source of the beef has yet to be identified, officials said. Department of Health spokeswoman Frances Tarlton made a case for there being a single source of contamination.
"We have done some typing of the bacteria from some of the patients and that has confirmed that the bacteria is the same in many cases and very similar in others, so we are fairly confident that it came from the same source," she told SN.
Moore, however, painted a murkier picture. "Grand Union told us they buy all of their ground beef from one supplier, but they also told us that they buy other cuts of meat from other sources.
"When the butcher is trimming a roast, or trimming a rack of ribs or whatever, the scraps that are left over from that, they throw those in and they grind them with the [other] ground meat. So, while they get their ground meat from one source, they also add other meat to it, [and] that sort of complicates how you track it down."
No product recall is planned at this time, although officials said they are still awaiting results on meat samples taken from some of the stores in mid-August.
"As far as I know, none of the hamburger that has been picked up out of the stores since the investigation began has tested positive," said Tarlton.
The New York State Departments of Health and of Agriculture and Markets had issued a joint statement Aug. 11 warning consumers to be especially careful when handling and cooking ground beef. The statement was also intended to assure the public that there was as yet no reason to believe Grand Union was at fault.
"State investigators found no apparent problems with Grand Union's meat-handling practices and believe the problem originated in contaminated product received from Grand Union's suppliers," the statement said.
In a separate statement issued on the same day, Grand Union claimed it had reviewed all its procedures to ensure that safe, sanitary standards were followed at all locations, and said that collected samples by the chain and "state agencies" had yielded no indication of the presence of E. coli.
In addition, Grand Union's statement emphasized the chain's quality control procedures, including random sample inspections, monitoring and investigation of complaints, and routine inspection by Grand Union sanitarians as well as outside firms.
Finally, the chain offered to refund the purchase price of any ground beef returned by customers, under its "No Hassles" satisfaction-guaranteed policy.
The chain did not take out any ads to more directly warn consumers, according to Tarlton. However, quite a few local papers picked up on the story of the outbreak, she noted.