Final Report on Oklahoma E. Coli Outbreak: Origin UnknownApr 10, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP The exact origin of the historic E. coli outbreak linked to the Country Cottage Restaurant will never be known. According to the Associated Press (AP), the Oklahoma State Department of Health final report on the outbreak pointed to the ongoing spread of food borne bacteria throughout the restaurant, as opposed to one specific food or incident, as sparking the outbreak.
The timing of the spread is believed to have been from August 15 to the 24, said the AP. The rare and historic E. coli O111, believed to be the largest in history of E. coli strain O111—resulted in the death of one man, 314 illness, and scores of hospitalizations, with a number of children requiring dialysis.
NewsOK reports that according to the findings, the outbreak did originate at the Country Cottage restaurant, investigators were unable to “conclusively determine how E. coli was introduced” at the restaurant, and that there was an ongoing food-borne transmission involved at Country Cottage. Dr. Kristy Bradley, state epidemiologist, said cross-contamination of the buffet food was likely because those who were sickened had reportedly consumed a variety of foods on a variety of days, said NewsOK.
Dr. Bradley also reported that every resource was exhausted to determine how the deadly pathogen entered the restaurant and that employee or well water contamination had been eliminated as possible sources, said NewsOK. "It’s a mystery we may never know the answer to,” she said, quoted NewsOK.
According to a number of news outlets, the investigation involved about 6,000 man-hours and 1,823 interviews at a cost of about $250,000. Also according to various media, State Attorney General Drew Edmondson accused Health Department officials of “botching” the inquiry, adding that he believes “excess chicken litter spread by poultry operations is responsible for contaminating wells and causing the outbreak,” said NewsOK, adding that Edmondson stated his findings eliminated both human contamination and cattle waste. Meanwhile, Health Department officials said strands of E. coli found in area wells did not match those found at Country Cottage, said NewsOK.
Country Cottage, a buffet-style restaurant in business for over 22 years, has had 88 health department violations since 2004 that range from improper food storage to improper food temperatures. Cross contamination violations occurred in 2005 and 2006, according to health department reports. This type of contamination can take place when, for instance, a meat product is placed near a product such as eggs. Cross contamination was originally suspected; however, an Oklahoma State Department of Health official said that because investigators were never able to identify a specific food source, they believe a staff member who handled many foods at the restaurant might have been infected and spread the contamination.
During an August 23 surprise inspection, nine health code violations were identified. Despite this, Country Cottage remained open on August 24, the day the one related death occurred. Also, internal documents revealed that State Health Department officials allowed Country Cottage to remain open temporarily—despite confirming six of eight initial food poisoning victims had eaten its food. The Health Department first publicly cited Country Cottage as a possible link in the outbreak on August 25, saying in a release that “a large number of persons who became ill” had eaten there. The investigation ultimately revealed that every person who became ill in the outbreak had eaten food prepared by Country Cottage.