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E. coli hunt, once limited to Missouri, expands to other states

Monday, November 28th, 2011

ST. LOUIS — The race to find the source of the E. coli 0157 bacteria that has sickened more than two dozen people in the area will expand to food distributors outside the state, Missouri health officials announced Tuesday.

There have been 26 E. coli infections confirmed through lab testing in Jefferson City, Mo. Another eight suspected cases in the St. Louis area, including one in St. Clair County, may be linked to the outbreak.

Based on interviews with sick people and their relatives, health authorities determined that Schnucks salad bars appeared to be a common link in most of their food histories. Of 20 people who reported they recently shopped at Schnucks, 17 said they had eaten from the salad bar.

The Post-Dispatch has learned of five people with reported E. coli illnesses who said they ate from salad bars at Schnucks stores in downtown St. Louis and nearby Ladue, High Ridge and Ballwin during the week of Oct. 16.

Schnucks voluntarily removed suspected items including lettuce, strawberries and Caesar dressing from its salad bars when the outbreak was confirmed on Oct. 26.

“Those products that were in question were not created by Schnucks,” said company spokeswoman Lori Willis. “There’s got to be a supplier involved in some way.”

Investigators collected samples of the salad bar items removed by Schnucks that remain in cold storage. While testing is ongoing, none of the 17 food samples from several area stores tested positive for E. coli. Two strawberries taken from homes of sick people were also clear of the bacteria.

Food safety inspectors said they found no evidence of possible contamination in Schnucks stores or warehouses. Willis said that while the salad bar items may have been replenished after people reported eating from them, the supplier would have been the same.

“Investigators cannot at this point say with certainty that they have identified the source, as they continue to search for an explanation for the remaining cases” who did not report eating at Schnucks salad bars, according to a statement from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

Some of those people reported eating at other salad bars, according to the St. Louis County health department, but authorities have not identified other potential sources.

No food items have been tested from other groceries in the region, state health officials said.

The negative tests on the food samples from Schnucks stores indicate that the source of the bacteria could be farther up the food distribution chain. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will join the investigation as it expands to farms and distribution centers in other states. The investigation could lead to soil testing for possible contamination with animal feces.

Testing confirmed that the strain of E. coli in Missouri is not related to any other current outbreaks in the country, including 21 cases in North Carolina that may be linked to that state’s fair.

In May 2010, Schnucks alerted its stores and customers to a recall on a brand of shredded romaine lettuce sold in salad bars and in certain salads prepared in the store.

The produce had come from the same Arizona farm as lettuce distributed by Freshway Foods of Ohio that tested positive for E. coli 0145 and was linked to 19 illnesses in Ohio, Michigan and New York.

The Schnucks distributor, Vaughan Foods of Oklahoma, was not linked to any illnesses. Representatives for Vaughan Foods could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Salad bars are notorious for tough investigations of disease outbreaks, said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in food poisoning cases.

“Everybody eats everything or can’t remember exactly what they ate,” Marler said. “That doesn’t absolve the salad bar maker or owner, but it’s definitely difficult to pinpoint a particular food item.”

The law firm of Aleshire Robb P.C. provides legal services to the cities of Springfield, Nixa, Ozark, Branson, Lamar, Lebanon, West Plains, Joplin, Neosho, Marshfield, Bolivar, Buffalo, Monett, Cassville, Kimberling City, Aurora, Billings, Republic, Mt. Vernon, Carthage and Nevada and the counties of Barton, Greene, Christian, Dallas, Webster, Taney, Stone, Lawrence, Jasper, Howell, Laclede and Polk, Missouri; MO, Southwest Missouri.

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