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Shaw's, Stop & Shop pull beef from shelves

Two major New England supermarket chains said they have removed Topps Meat Co. beef from their shelves over the weekend, and state officials said there have been no reports of tainted hamburger following a nationwide recall of 21.7 million pounds of meat potentially contaminated by a dangerous strain of E. coli bacteria.

Both Shaw's Supermarkets Inc. and Stop & Shop Supermarket Cos., which together have nearly 600 stores in New England and elsewhere, carried frozen hamburgers sold under the Topps brand before the recall, which affected 25 products. (Some were also sold under the Mike's brand name.)

But both companies acknowledged they may have to overcome consumer fears about the safety of beef as a result of the recall.

At Shaw's 204 stores, that means signs indicating which products were affected and managers ready to answer shoppers' questions.

"In general we have to win the confidence of our consumers that the food they are eating is safe," said Judy Chong, a spokeswoman.

Stop & Shop said it not only pulled Topps products from shelves in its 389 stores, but also removed information about them from the computer system that links cash registers to inventories. If a customer picks up a box that was accidentally left behind, cashiers won't be able to make the sale, said Stop & Shop spokesman Robert Keane.

But the lawyer representing a Florida teenager who was sickened by contaminated beef said there is still cause for alarm.

"Consumers should be worried. You've got 22 million pounds of beef recalled, and it doesn't seem to be penetrating the consciousness of consumers and retailers enough to make a difference," said Scott Schlesinger, who is suing Wal-Mart Stores Inc. on behalf of the family of a Samantha Safranek, a 15-year-old from Fort Lauderdale who was hospitalized in August with an E. coli infection after eating Topps beef allegedly bought at one of its stores.

At Wal-Mart stores with grocery sections, the frozen beef was sold under the Sam's Choice name.

The US Agriculture Department said yesterday that the source of the contamination is still unknown.

There have been 27 reports of illnesses that could have been caused by tainted meat, the USDA said, but so far only three cases have been confirmed.

Last year, the United States beef industry produced 26 billion pounds of meat worth $50.5 billion, according to the Cattleman's Beef Board.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health sent an alert about the recall to local health departments last week but so far has not received any reports of tainted beef or related illness here, state health officials said.

If there had been any confirmed E. coli cases, stool samples from the affected person would be collected by a doctor and sent to a state lab, which would determine whether the strain matched that found in the recalled beef, said Mary Gilchrist, director of the State Laboratory Institute in Jamaica Plain.

From there, investigators would try to determine the source of the meat - whether in a freezer at someone's home or in a restaurant's kitchen - and work to remove it from circulation. In extreme cases, state or local health authorities could shut down a restaurant or supermarket.

Material from Globe wire services was used in this report. Keith Reed can be reached at reed@globe.com.

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