Even so, the trend line is encouraging. Health officials pointed to two recent meat recalls as helping curb this outbreak, as well awareness about the importance of safely handling and thoroughly cooking ground beef.
The Carrollton company K2D Foods, which does business as Colorado Premium Foods, recalled 113,424 pounds of raw ground beef products on April 23 that may be contaminated with E. coli, according to the CDC. The company provides meats to restaurants.
One day later, Grant Park Packing, of Franklin Park, Ill., also recalled approximately 53,200 pounds of raw ground beef products.
The CDC said both companies had ground beef samples test positive for the E.coli 0103, the strain responsible for the current outbreak. More testing is underway to try to establish a definitive link between the contaminated meat and the particular bacteria strain that’s caused illness.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service, which regulates meat and poultry, is taking the lead in the investigation.
Since March 1, 69 people have fallen ill in Kentucky, 55 in Tennessee, 49 in Georgia, 12 in Ohio, five in Florida and two in Virginia. Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Mississippi have each reported one case. Twenty-eight people have been hospitalized in the outbreak, but no deaths have been reported.
Calls to the K2D's headquarters were not immediately returned.
At Grant Park Packing, the bulk raw ground beef was marked "for institutional use only" with pack dates of October and November of last year. The items were shipped to Minnesota for further distribution and Kentucky for institutional use.
The CDC has not advised the public to stop eating ground beef or that retailers and restaurants stop selling it. But they have been urging restaurants, retailers and institutions to take notice of the recall. None of the meat recalled is sold at grocery stores.
While illness caused by the E.coli 0103 strain is considered serious, it's less likely to cause the severe symptoms, kidney failure and death that E.coli 0157 did last year. Outbreaks of E.coli 0103 -- which can lead to stomach cramping, vomiting and diarrhea -- are relatively uncommon, but this current one is the largest on record.
The agency also offered tips for avoiding the bacteria, advising people to thoroughly wash countertops, cutting boards, plates and utensils that touch raw meat with hot, soapy water or a bleach solution to prevent contamination.
Hamburgers and mixtures like meatloaf should also be cooked until they reach an internal temperature of 160 degrees, to kill harmful germs.