Sprouts Fingered As E

Sprouts Fingered as E. coli Culprit

Five summer victims linked to food grown outside the county

The Tribune, San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Fri, Sep. 27, 2002

 

Four women and a teenage girl who acquired E. coli infections in San Luis Obispo County over the summer likely contracted the bacteria from eating alfalfa sprouts, the county Public Health Department announced Thursday.

 

The tainted sprouts came from a grower in Los Angeles County, officials said, and no evidence has indicated that the sprouts were contaminated or mishandled locally. The state Department of Health Services, which took over the investigation in August because of its greater resources, would not reveal the grower's name.

 

Two victims ate contaminated food at a Cal Poly cafeteria, said Tom Maier, the county's director of community health. The university has since stopped serving alfalfa sprouts altogether.

 

Maier would not identify the businesses where the three people ate, even though no county restaurants have been faulted.

 

Two Cal Poly students and a university summer conference participant in late July contracted E. coli 0157:H7, a bacteria that can cause kidney failure, severe diarrhea, stomach cramps and, in rare cases, death.

 

During that same time, two people traveling through San Luis Obispo County also experienced E. coli symptoms. The five cases were later determined to be related.

 

The victims experienced mild symptoms and have fully recovered, Maier said.

No lab results led to alfalfa sprouts. Officials identified the food as the source through victim interviews and tracing what and where they ate.

 

These were isolated incidents, Maier said, and no ongoing danger exists.

 

The state and county health agencies have yet to determine how the E. coli got into the sprouts. Maier said the bacteria could have grown in the seeds, or been transmitted from cattle feces into the ground, among other possibilities.

 

The state Department of Health Services plans to wrap up its investigation by next month, said Patrick Kennelly, the chief of food safety inspection.

 

"We'll trace back the sprouts to the manufacturing source," he said. "We'll conduct a full epidemiological review of the facility, operations, records, firms involved in the sprout production, lot samples and post-irrigation testing."

 

On average, fewer than 10 E. coli outbreaks occur in the state each year, Kennelly said. Maier, who has worked at the county's Public Health Department for 20 years, said the recent outbreak is the largest he's witnessed locally.

 

With some assistance, Maier said, the Public Health Department would be prepared to handle a larger threat to public health.

 

"Until you have an outbreak, you don't know how certain procedures will work," he said. "Any local health department has resources limited to them. If there were a bigger outbreak, we would get in touch with the state and get more help right away."

 

Although its inquiry is complete, the Public Health Department won't release documents pertaining to the outbreak because the state is still investigating, Maier said.

 

The Department of Health Services, however, said it wasn't requiring the agency to withhold the records.

 

"Their investigation is complete. It's their call," Kennelly said.

 

In another development, Ashley Adams, a Cal Poly freshman who ate contaminated sprouts on campus, has hired San Luis Obispo attorney Sig Haddad, who plans to review the health agencies' reports. He then hopes to either litigate or reach a settlement with the faulted businesses.

 

"Ashley became very sick by what she ate and that shouldn't happen," he said. "There are rules these companies should abide by, and we need to look into what happened."