CHICAGO The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Tuesday outbreaks of E. coli bacteria in Michigan and Ohio are linked, and health officials in both states suspect the outbreak was caused by ground beef.
The E. coli scare comes as U.S. health authorities are struggling to find the source of a Salmonella outbreak that has sickened more than 550 people.
Health officials in Michigan said late Tuesday more than half of the 15 people in the state with confirmed E. coli cases reported purchasing ground beef from Kroger Food Stores, the largest U.S. grocery chain.
"We were notified today that E. coli illnesses reported in Michigan and Ohio have been linked to products purchased in some of our stores in those states," said Kroger spokeswoman Meghan Glynn in an e-mail.
She said the illnesses were reported between May 31 and June 8. "Any ground beef sold during that period is no longer available in our stores," Glynn said.
Glynn said Ohio and Michigan health authorities have not identified the supplier or the specific type of ground beef that caused the illnesses.
"We purchase our ground beef from major suppliers in the industry and we are working with federal, state and local agencies to identify the supplier," she said.
As of late Monday, the CDC said it had confirmed 24 cases of E. coli that shared the same genetic fingerprint and characteristics, indicating they were related.
Of those 24, the CDC said 11 cases were reported in Michigan and 13 in Ohio. Fourteen people have been hospitalized, and one has developed a type of kidney failure called hemolytic-uremic syndrome, the CDC said. No deaths have been reported.
Kristopher Weiss, a spokesman for the Ohio health department, said there are now 17 cases in Ohio and the state is investigating two additional probable cases.
Michigan health officials said there are 15 confirmed cases that are genetically linked and 10 of those people have been hospitalized.
They said Kroger is cooperating fully with state and federal investigators. Michigan officials are still investigating and said other grocery outlets may be identified.
Kroger's spokeswoman said concerned customers in Michigan and Ohio, especially near the cities of Columbus and Toledo, should discard any ground beef in their freezers purchased in late May or early June. Glynn said Kroger will refund their purchase price.
Weiss said a sample of raw ground beef provided by one of the infected patients in Ohio tested positive for E. coli 0157:H7 at the state's agricultural lab. That sample has been forwarded to the Ohio Department of Health for testing.
According to the CDC Web site, E. coli 0157:H7 is an especially toxic strain which can cause severe illness. Symptoms can include stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting. Most people get better within 15 days, but some cases can lead to kidney failure.
The CDC said all ground beef should be cooked thoroughly to an internal temperature of 160 degrees (71.1 degrees Celsius).
The CDC estimates that there may be about 70,000 infections with E. coli O157:H7 each year in the United States, but many of those infected people do not seek medical care.
(Editing by Alan Elsner)