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Nearly 3 million pounds of frozen foods linked to rare E. coli outbreak

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Frozen pizzas recalled due to possible E. coli poisoning

Check your freezer for potentially contaminated pizzas and other foods, as nearly 3 million pounds of frozen pizza, mozzarella bites, Philly cheese steaks and other products from a New York food company have been recalled after being linked to a rare but potentially dangerous outbreak of E. coli poisoning.

According to Thursday’s press release from Rich Products Corp., the food maker is pulling all products manufactured at its Georgia plant. The recalled food products have best buy dates from Jan. 1 2013 through Sept. 29, 2014, the release said.

The products in question may be contaminated with the bacterium E. coli O121, which has already poisoned 24 people in 15 states after they ate Farm Rich and Market Day frozen chicken quesadillas, pizza slices and other snack foods.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), seven of the sickened people have been hospitalized, although many others may have been sickened without knowing it due to the complex challenge involved in detecting E. coli O121 – a dangerous strain that’s as bad as the recently identified E. coli O157:H7 that was frequently linked to outbreaks caused by hamburger.

Today’s announcement expands the one announced March 28 regarding a recall of 196,222 pounds of Farm Rich brand frozen chicken quesadillas, as well as other frozen mini meals and snack items due to possible contamination with E. coli O121, which is a dangerous strain among a potentially lethal group of bacteria called Shiga-toxin producing E. coli or STECs. The bacteria – including E. coli O157 – creates poisons that can result in severe illness and disease, such as bloody diarrhea, kidney failure and even death.

Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture officials banned E. coli O121 and five other strains from the nation’s beef supply. The strains were called the “big six”, and this latest outbreak is the first time that Food Safety and Inspection Service officials have recalled products that could be contaminated with E. coli O121, which is difficult to identify in an outbreak.

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The reason for the difficulty is that clinical laboratories normally only test for the E. coli O157 strains – so to detect the other strains, laboratories have to screen for the presence of Shiga toxins before sending any positive samples to public health laboratories for detection of any non-E. coli O157 STECs.

The particular strain involved in this latest outbreak is, in fact, so rare that its genetic fingerprint has only been seen fewer than 30 times in the network of labs the CDC uses to track bacteria related to foodborne illnesses.

According to the CDC, the outbreak of E. coli 0121 was first identified by the New York State Department of Health in an open package of Farm Rich brand frozen mini chicken and cheese quesadillas after a person at home fell ill after eating them.

It usually takes between two to eight days for people to get sick from Shiga-toxin producing E. coli, and symptoms include bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps. While most victims recover within a week, some get extremely ill from a complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome that causes kidney failure.

Children and the elderly are most vulnerable to the worst effects of the illness.

To see the full list of products affected by the recall, click here.

SOURCES: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); Rich Products Corp. (Press Release, April 4, 2013); New York State Department of Health