If you have some extra-lean ground beef in your freezer, there's a chance it could be contaminated by E. coli bacteria.

If you have some extra-lean ground beef in your freezer, there's a chance it could be contaminated by E. coli bacteria.

Public health officials have linked an outbreak of gastro-intestinal illness in Oregon and Washington to extra-lean ground beef sold during late July and early August at Fred Meyer and Safeway stores.

At least eight people have fallen ill with infections from the bacteria E. coli O157:H7, including two in Deschutes County, said Tom Towslee, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Human Services.

The bacteria can cause mild to severe intestinal illness, including severe cramps and diarrhea that is often bloody. Some patients develop complications that may require hospitalization. In rare cases, the bacteria can cause severe or fatal kidney damage.

Two people who fell ill in Washington had to be hospitalized, but both have recovered. It's unknown whether any cases have developed in Jackson County, but the normal incubation period for illness to surface is about a week, said Gary Stevens, the county's environmental health manager.

Towslee said the bacteria has been traced to extra-lean ground beef sold under the "Northwest Finest" brand as "natural ground beef 7% fat" with a UPC code that reads 7 52907 60012 7. It also was sold under the "Northwest Finest" label as "organic ground beef 10% fat" with no UPC code.

The meat was sold in 16-ounce black plastic trays with sell-by dates between Aug. 1 and Aug. 11, 2007. Each package also bears the phrase "Est. 965" inside the inspection mark of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The meat was ground by Interstate Meat Dist. Inc., in Clackamas.

Fred Meyer stores across Oregon, including Jackson County, sold only the meat labeled as organic ground beef, said Melinda Merrill, a corporate spokeswoman. She said anyone who still has the meat can bring it to their Fred Meyer store, preferably still frozen, for a full refund.

The meat also was probably sold at local Safeway stores, said Dan Floyd, Safeway's director of public affairs for Oregon and Southwest Washington, but with 118 stores in the region, there's no way to say with certainty where it may have been sold.

Floyd said Safeway will refund the full purchase price for anyone who still has the meat.

The meat also was sold at QFC stores, none of which are located in Southern Oregon.

The bacterium is a particularly virulent strain of an organism that is found in cattle manure. Meat becomes contaminated when it is somehow mixed with or contaminated by manure during processing. Putting meat through a grinder helps spread the contamination.

Poor toilet hygiene can spread the bacteria to people who have not eaten tainted meat.

The bacterium is a major source of foodborne illness. Based on a 1999 estimate, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 73,000 cases of infection and 61 deaths occur in the United States each year.

Southern Oregon has a long connection with the bacterium. It was first recognized by the CDC as a cause of illness after an outbreak of bloody diarrhea here in 1982 was traced to contaminated hamburger. Stevens recalled that CDC epidemiologists came to Medford trying to find the source of the mysterious illness.

"We sampled everything," Stevens said, "things you wouldn't believe, looking for the source."

CDC data indicate that more infections in the United States have been caused by eating undercooked ground beef than by any other food.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail:bkettler@mailtribune.com