Saturday, August 14, 1999

Coleslaw blamed for E. coli outbreak

Victims linked to 4 KFC restaurants

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Bad coleslaw at four Cincinnati-area Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants is to blame for the E. coli illnesses in 11 of the 30 confirmed cases.

        All 11 people ate coleslaw purchased between July 5 and July 27 from the restaurants, health officials said Friday.

        The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is investigating whether the trouble started with tainted cabbage supplied to the restaurants. Officials do not know which supplier was involved, or whether the supplier provided bad cabbage to any other restaurants.

        The restaurant chain has taken several steps to reassure customers that current batches of KFC coleslaw are safe, said Jonathan Blum, KFC senior vice president of public affairs:

        • All the coleslaw in storage at the four restaurants was thrown away.

        • Employees have been retrained in food-handling techniques.

        • All KFC restaurants in the Ohio Valley buy pre-chopped, pre-washed ingredients; they no longer chop the cabbage and carrots in their kitchens. About one-third of KFC's 5,200 restaurants already use the pre-chopped mix. Eventually, all KFC coleslaw will be made this way.

        “All of us at KFC are deeply concerned about those who have become ill in this community,” Mr. Blum said.

        Since early June, Southwest Ohio health officials have reported 30 cases of illness caused by E. coli O157:H7, a sometimes deadly form of the bacteria.

        Of those, 19 cases have no obvious connections. Lab testing has found eight different E. coli DNA patterns among those vic tims. No matching group includes more than three victims.

        There could be several reasons for that, said Janet Rickabaugh, Clermont County health commissioner.

        Summer is the peak season for E. coli illness. People can get it from eating undercooked hamburger, swimming in sewage-contaminated water, or failing to wash their hands after using the bathroom or changing diapers.

        Combine the peak-season factor with all the publicity about the Tristate cluster, and the result could be a higher-than-normal number of reported cases. People with symptoms of food-borne illness, such as severe nausea and diarrhea, might have been more likely to see a doctor. And doctors and hospitals might have been more likely to order tests, Dr. Rickabaugh said.

        The 11 KFC-related cases, however, stood out.

        Food inspectors in Clermont County, after interviewing several victims in early July, were the first to notice a possible link to KFC. Soon after, other victims in other counties recalled eating at KFC.

        All the restaurants were inspected. Some irregularities in food handling, such as allowing cabbage to soak in a sink meant strictly for rinsing, were found and ordered to be corrected.

        DNA testing found that the 11 victims had matching E. coli substrains that had never been identified before in Ohio, Dr. Rickabaugh said.

        Confirmation came from a statistical analysis completed Thursday by a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was invited to town at the request of the Ohio Department of Health.

        By interviewing the victims and a control group of dozens of other Tristate residents, the CDC found a “statistically significant strong association” between the 11 victims and the KFC coleslaw.

        KFC will not be fined or otherwise sanctioned by the local health departments.

        The chain's quick actions and high level of cooperation with officials made punishment unnecessary, said Hamilton County Health Commissioner Tim Ingram.

        Four other cases — three in Kentucky and one in Indiana — were not related to the Southwest Ohio cases.


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