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Burger probe turns toward domestic beef suppliers

Investigators tracking the source of E. coli O157:H7 bacteria that sickened five people in two provinces are now focused on an Ontario processor’s suppliers of Canadian beef.

Three lines of retail frozen burgers, all made at Cardinal Meat Specialists’ plant at Brampton, Ont., have been subject to recalls since Dec. 12, including Butcher’s Choice Garlic Peppercorn, Butcher’s Choice Hickory Barbecue and Cardinal Select Prime Rib beef burgers.

The recalls follow cases of E. coli-related illness, including three in Ontario and two in Alberta, which were later tied to the genetic fingerprint of the bacteria found on samples of burgers from one production day at the Cardinal plant.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said Monday it found the Brampton plant has been following all necessary food safety controls, and would instead examine Cardinal’s suppliers of beef and spices.

However, CFIA said Friday, "no food safety concerns were identified at the establishment that produced the spices, and spices tested by our CFIA laboratory were found to be negative for E. coli O157:H7."

CFIA said Friday it’s also verified the beef ingredients supplied to Cardinal from Australia and New Zealand "met all import certification and testing requirements" and no cases of O157:H7-related illness in those countries to date have the same genetic fingerprint as the Canadian cases.

That leaves Cardinal’s various sources of "domestic beef ingredients," into which the investigation continues, CFIA said Friday.

E. coli O157:H7 found in any related ingredients "may lead to additional recalls," the agency warned, but while it plans to "rigorously pursue all leads, it is possible the source may never be definitively identified."

All five people who became ill from the O157 strain in question have recovered or are recovering, the Public Health Agency of Canada said Monday. The people range in age from 10 to 59 and became ill sometime between early September and late last month.

Most strains of E. coli are harmless, but the more toxic strains such as O157:H7 can cause severe stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting or, in some cases, more serious complications such as kidney failure.

While one of the five people was hospitalized, PHAC said none of the five developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which in more severe cases of O157 infection causes red blood cells to prematurely self-destruct, clogging the kidneys.

Related stories:
Ont. E. coli probe shifts to burger plant’s suppliers, Dec. 18, 2012
Burger recall widens as E. coli illnesses investigated, Dec. 14, 2012

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