An outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 went beyond New England over the weekend to cast a shadow over 12 states, including three that are very distant from the Northeast, where most of the illnesses and two deaths have occurred.

ecoli-outbreak-map.jpgLola Scott Russell, spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, said there were two deaths and 26 other illnesses being investigated in 12 states from ground beef that may have come from Fairbank Farms in upstate New York.

The first death was reported in New Hampshire, and the second in New York State.

Fairbank Farms entered the picture on Halloween when the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) announced the company was recalling 546,000-pounds of fresh ground beef, distributed in mid-September.

Fairbank Farms shipped the ground beef to its customers from North Carolina to Maine.

Far from that distribution pattern are three states said to have possible cases associated with the recall–California,South Dakota and Minnesota.

Douglas Schultz, spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Health, says the Gopher State has one confirmed E. coli O157:H7 case with a pulsed-field gel electrphoresis pattern, or PFGE (the genetic fingerprint), that links the outbreak cases together.   Minnesota’s epidemiological study leads its investigators to doubt there is a connection, however, as the PFGE pattern is not that unsual.

“It does not appear to be connected at this time,” Schultz says.   Minnesota, however, is providing lab samples to CDC just in case.   South Dakota health officials were also invited to comment, but declined the opportunity.

Clearly, the outbreak remains centered on New England, where CDC says there are 18 people suffering from E. coli infections.  But late Monday, CDC drew a larger picture of the outbreak.
“DNA fingerprinting” analyses found that most ill persons had consumed ground beef, with several purchasing the same or similar product from a common retail chain, CDC said in a statement posted on its website. “At least some of the illnesses appear to be associated with products subject to these recalls.

“A sample from an opened package of ground beef recovered from a patient’s home was tested by the Massachusetts Department of Health and yielded an E. coli O157:H7 isolate that matched the patient isolates by DNA analysis.

“The cluster includes twenty-eight persons from 12 states infected with matching strains of E. coli O157:H7. Of these, the genetic association of 7 human isolates and the product isolate have been confirmed by an advanced secondary DNA test ; secondary tests are pending on others.

The number of ill persons identified in each state is as follows: California (1), Connecticut (4), Massachusetts (8), Maryland (1), Maine (2), Minnesota (1), New Hampshire (4), New Jersey (1), New York (1), Pennsylvania (2), South Dakota (2), and Vermont (1).

And FSIS Monday only released a partial list of retailers that received the ground beef from Fairbank Farms.

All Shaw’s stores in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont received the Fairbank Farms ground beef, according to FSIS.  The agency also said Price Chopper stores in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York and Vermont got the beef.

Lists for B.J. Wholesale Club, Giant, Lancaster, Trader Joe’s, Ford Brothers, and Wild Harvest —all retailers for Fairbank Farms—were still not available late Monday.

Just a week ago, South Shore Meats in Brockton, MA recalled just over 1,000 pounds of beef products thought to be associated with the illnesses experienced by sixth graders at Rhode Island’s Lincoln Middle School, who were just back from a three-day stay at Camp Bournedale in Plymouth, MA.

Two of the Rhode Island campers tested positive for E. coli O157:H7 and were hospitalized.  Up to 20 other students and adult chaperones suffered from what was called diarrheal illnesses.

Health officials say the two outbreaks centered on New England are just coincidences.  That theory will be tested as events transpire.

“In nearly 17 years doing E. coli cases, I do not recall two separate outbreaks and recalls occurring in the same geographical area in the same time frame,” Seattle food safety attorney Bill Marler wrote on his personal Blog.  “It will be interesting to see during litigation if Fairbanks supplied meat to South Shore.

“It will also be interesting . . . to see if any of all of these cases are linked genetically via PFGE.  Bottom line is that people getting sick and dying are still how we do outbreak investigations and issue recalls.  It will be certain that we will be looking hard at finished hamburger testing for E. coli from both plants.”