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10 million pounds of frozen pizza, snacks recalled in rare E. coli outbreak

A New York snack food maker now says it is recalling more than 10 million pounds of frozen pizza, mozzarella bites, Philly cheese steaks and other products linked to a rare and potentially dangerous outbreak of E. coli poisoning. Three million pounds of the products remain in the marketplace, a company spokesman said Friday.

Rich Products Corp. of Buffalo, N.Y., is pulling all products manufactured at its Waycross, Ga., plant. The  snacks have best buy dates from Jan. 1 2013 through Sept. 29, 2014, according to a press release. For a full list of products, click here.

Spokesman Dwight Gram originally told NBC News that 3 million pounds of the products were recalled, but he later confirmed that the company also had control of 7 million pounds of the frozen items that had not reached stores.

The foods may be contaminated with the bacterium E. coli O121, which already has sickened 27 people in 15 states who ate certain Farm Rich and Market Day frozen chicken quesadillas, pizza slices and other snack foods. Eight people have been hospitalized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which updated cases on Friday.

However, many more people may have been made ill by the products without knowing it because of complexities involved in identifying  E. coli O121, a strain that can be just as dangerous as the better-known E. coli O157:H7 frequently tied to outbreaks caused by hamburger.

The Thursday announcement expands a March 28 recall of 196,222 pounds of Farm Rich brand frozen chicken quesadillas and other frozen mini meals and snack items because they could be contaminated with E. coli O121.

The strain is among a potentially lethal group of bacteria known as Shiga-toxin producing E. coli or STECs. The bacteria, which include E. coli O157, create poisons that can lead to severe illness and disease, including bloody diarrhea, kidney failure and death.

In 2011, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials banned E. coli O121 and five other strains -- known as “the big six” -- from the nation’s beef supply. This outbreak is the first time Food Safety and Inspection Service officials have recalled products potentially tainted with E. coli O121.

The bacteria are tough to identify in outbreaks because clinical laboratories typically test only for the E. coli O157 strains. To detect the other strains, labs must screen for the presence of Shiga toxins and then send positive samples to public health laboratories to find any non-E. coli O157 STECs.

The strain involved in this outbreak is so rare, its genetic fingerprint has been seen less than 30 times in PulseNet, the CDC’s network of laboratories that track bacteria involved in foodborne illness.

The New York state Department of Health identified the outbreak strain of E. coli O121 in an opened package of Farm Rich brand frozen mini chicken and cheese quesadillas from an ill person’s home, the CDC said.

People usually become sick from Shiga-toxin producing E. coli within two to eight days after eating contaminated food.  Symptoms include bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Most people recover within a week, but others can become severely ill with a complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, which causes kidney failure.

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

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