No Cause Yet in Rare E. coli O111 Oklahoma Outbreak

A review at Country Cottage, the Locust Grove restaurant implicated in the massive <"">E. coli outbreak in Oklahoma, indicates that no disease-causing bacteria have been found on the surfaces there, according to the state Health Department.  “We found no firm evidence of E. coli 0111 on food preparation and serving surfaces,” said Dr. Kristy Bradley, the state’s epidemiologist.  “I would caution, however, that it is very challenging to go to the scene of a food-borne illness outbreak and try to retrieve an organism from surfaces that may have been cleaned since any contamination took place.”

Country Cottage restaurant is at the epicenter of the nation’s largest E. coli O111 outbreak.  E. coli are a group of bacteria found in animal intestines and feces.  Some strains of Escherichia coli are necessary for digestion; some are harmful, even deadly.  In this case, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified the very rare, toxin-producing, and sometimes fatal strain of E. coli O111 in stool samples taken from outbreak victims.  According to the state Health Department, E. coli O111 has only been “implicated in three other disease outbreaks in the United States.”  Among those E. coli that may cause serious disease and death are a group called Verocytotoxigenic E. coli (VTEC); E. coli O111 is in this group of virulent, potentially deadly E. coli strains.  In most E. coli-related outbreaks, the virulent, sometimes deadly, E. coli O157:H7—also one of the VTEC strains—is generally to blame.  That is not the case in this outbreak, which represents the largest E. coli O111 outbreak in U.S. history.

Meanwhile, analysis of Country Cottage foods samples continues.  “It is possible that any environmental contamination was not widespread in the restaurant, so our epidemiological investigation will continue to focus on what foods may have been contaminated and caused persons to become ill,” Bradley said.

In addition to one man dying, at least 206 people in 20 counties have fallen ill and 15 additional victims remained in Tulsa hospitals Tuesday.  Most of those who fell ill reported having eaten at Country Cottage before getting sick, according to the state.  About 50 people were hospitalized at the outbreak’s high point.  Some of the patients still hospitalized are undergoing treatment for organ failure, and several are children.

Also, state Health Department officials interviewed over 1,000 witnesses and are hoping to interview more families with children who ate at the restaurant August 15-17—regardless of whether or not they fell ill—to determine the possible association of illness to specific food items.  Most people who became ill reported eating at the Country Cottage that weekend.  The information being solicited will be used in a report on the outbreak, which the state Health Department said will be released by week’s end and is expected to identify a source in the bacterial contamination.  To date, the state has interviewed 1,300 people.

The Associated Press recently reported that during an August 23 surprise inspection at the Country Cottage restaurant, nine health code violations were identified.  Despite this, Country Cottage remained open on August 24, the day the one related death occurred.

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