DETROIT — The recall of 1.8 million pounds of ground beef possibly tainted with E. coli O157:H7 and shipped from Detroit has become a national concern, with the focus expanding toward retailers and what may be in consumers' freezers.
So far, 11 people in four states — Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri and Ohio — have been sickened in connection with the Class 1 recall, a classification denoting a high risk, with the "reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
The initial probe began with consumers who reported being sickened after eating at restaurants between April 22 to May 2.
Investigators now worry that the same beef from Detroit-based Wolverine Packing Co. might have been sent to grocers and other retail outlets, a spokesman for USDA's inspection service said Tuesday.
LIST: Tainted Beef Recall (PDF)
The USDA will issue a public list of retailers that have, or have had, the tainted products. That usually happens within days of the recall, as they are able to trace the information.
So far, the USDA lists numbers and types of meat; it does not include retailers that may have sold it.
At least a half-dozen of the 11 who were sickened were hospitalized, though there have been no deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is assisting in the investigation.
Seattle lawyer Bill Marler, who represented clients sickened in the deadly Jack in the Box E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in 1993, said those cases undoubtedly will climb.
He said he spent part of the day talking to a Michigan woman who had classic symptoms of food poisoning after eating a burger at a restaurant and is awaiting lab results. She told him that local public health officials said they would forward her case to the state and to the CDC.
"Will the number double? Probably. Will the meat recall expand? Absolutely," he said.
Wolverine executives issued a statement Monday saying, in part, that "while none of the Wolverine Packing product has tested positive for the pathogen implicated in this outbreak, the company felt it was prudent to take this voluntary recall action in response to the illnesses and initial outbreak investigation findings."
A spokesman, Chuck Sanger, noted the recall amount — 1.8 million pounds — hasn't changed, and the company remains focused on tracking down any unused meat.
The long-term damage to Wolverine's business won't be clear until the investigation closes, said Kaitlin Wowak, a management professor at University of Notre Dame, whose research has focused on food safety and recall.
"It has to do with the scope of the recall and the impact it can have on consumers," she said. "In Jack in the Box, children died from that recall. That is devastating."
The problem with this particular strain of E. coli is that it takes only a few bacteria cells to attach to the intestine and begin producing the toxins that can travel into a person's bloodstream and attack the kidneys, said Shannon Manning, a Michigan State University assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics.
"It is serious. Especially if you're a consumer with a young child at home, it would be good to check (any frozen meat) against any lists" produced by USDA, she said.