E. coli-Tainted Tri-Tip to Blame in Forest Ranch OutbreakOct 7, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
Health officials who suspected tainted tri-tip sickened at least 27 people in California this past September report that E. coli bacteria found on frozen leftover meat perfectly matches the bacteria found in stool samples taken from several people who became ill, said Dr. Mark Lundberg, Butte County health officer. Lundberg said it remains unclear how the meat became contaminated.
It seems that the outbreak originated from a fundraiser held in Forest Ranch on September 6 that was to benefit the volunteer fire department there. Lundberg initially reported that four people who attended the event became so seriously ill following the event that hosted 300-400 people that they required hospitalization. Health officials have long suspected that tri-tip served at the fundraiser was contaminated with E. coli bacteria.
Health officials learned that the sickness was caused by the dangerous strain of E. coli bacteria called E. coli 0157:H7. E. coli strain O157:H7 is an extremely virulent, contagious, and sometimes fatal strain and is typically spread when a person fails to properly wash his or her hands and then handles food. Once the food is eaten, the bacteria take hold. E. coli are a group of bacteria found in animal intestines and feces. Some strains are necessary for digestion; some are harmful, even deadly, such as strain O157:H7, which is generally found to be the culprit in E. coli-related food-borne illness outbreaks and has been confirmed to be to blame in the confirmed cases in this outbreak. This E. coli strain is in a group called Verocytotoxigenic E. coli (VTEC) linked to food poisoning. VTECs are very serious and can cause fatal blood poisoning, cystitis, deadly septicemia, and death.
In the US, E. coli is the leading cause of food-borne illness, accounting for about 73,000 infections and 61 deaths; last year, over 22 million pounds of beef and vegetables were recalled due to E. coli outbreaks. And, now, there is growing concern in the scientific community—not just because of the seeming prevalence of all manner of food borne illnesses—because instances of drug resistant E. coli are being reported world-wide and are similar in path to a mutated staph called MRSA, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus that, when not treated early, is resistant to all but the one antibiotic of last resort.
It was as a result of the interviews with people who attended the event that led officials to conclude that it was the tri-tip that was contaminated and sickened event attendees. Subsequent tests confirmed the link, said Lundberg who added that it remains unclear how the cooked meat became contaminated. Food preparers at the event had the right equipment and, according to interviews, seemed to do everything right, he said, but clearly something went wrong. When large amounts of food are prepared there is the potential for contamination, he said. It's possible that the cooked tri-tip came into contact with juices from the raw meat. Or possibly, he added, that someone who might have helped prepare the food was sick and did not properly wash his or her hands before handling the food.