Four people died after eating raw beef served at a barbecue restaurant chain in Japan, broadcaster NHK reported Thursday.

Two young boys and two women fell sick and died of food poisoning at restaurants of the Yakiniku-zakaya Ebisu chain in Toyama and Fukui prefectures.

Dozens of other customers have also fallen sick in other prefectures.

The O-111 strain of E. coli bacteria was detected in the bodies of the dead boys, health authorities said.

Sources said a Tokyo meat wholesaler produced the beef exclusively for the barbecue chain.
The wholesaler told health ministry officials the meat was meant to be eaten cooked. They said the beef had been sliced, vacuum-packed and stored in refrigerators.

However, the restaurant chain said the wholesaler assured them the meat was safe to eat raw.
Japan's health ministry is investigating along with police in Toyama and Fukui.

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