The place most St. Louis E. coli victims are mentioning in their food diaries — Schnucks — gets A grades almost all the time from restaurant inspectors.

Schnucks, with at least 23 salad, seafood, and deli bars under inspection by the city of St. Louis Department of Health, would appear to be one of the safest places to eat.  

Under the city of St. Louis letter grade system, Schnucks not only gets As for the current year, but has maintained that top grade as a three-year average.

The name of the privately held grocery store chain, which expanded from a single location in north St. Louis in 1937, has come up a lot  in Missouri’s current E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, although on Tuesday the St. Louis County Department of Health said a source has not yet been identified.

Schnucks, with 90 locations mostly centered in Missouri, has been mentioned by some but not all of the patients interviewed in regard to the St. Louis-focused outbreak.

“We are still interviewing those affected, inspecting food samples, and submitting specimens to the state health lab for analysis; however, at this time, we still do not know the source of the bacteria,” said Dr. Dolores J. Gunn, director of the St. Louis County Department of Health. “None of the food samples we have collected have tested positive for E. coli.”

St. Louis County has 20 of the 26 statewide victims.  Nineteen (19) are hospitalized, including 17 in St. Louis.  In addition to the 26 confirmed cases, at least another seven cases are under investigation.

Schnucks has 66 stores in the Greater St. Louis area and is the “dominant salad bar operator.” Food samples collected for testing from its locations have included lettuce, strawberries, and Caesar salad dressings.

Although none of the samples have yet tested positive, a store spokesman says those items have been removed from all its locations just to be sure.  In addition, the chain’s food safety and buying teams are contacting suppliers so they can assist the investigation “in whatever way is needed.”

An A grade in a city of St. Louis restaurant inspection can be achieved even with one critical violation, or as many as a half dozen minor violations, but apparently not both.   For example, the Schnuck’s Pizza and Salad Bar at 315 N. 9th in St. Louise had a critical violation for handling cooked Italian sausage in June, but only lost five points and earned an A grade.

In addition to its string of A grades, Schnucks is also rated as being at the top of the carry-out choices  in St. Louis.

The county health department is asking local physicians to consider E. coli whenever evaluating any child, infant, or adult who has bloody diarrhea, diarrhea, fever, nausea, vomiting and cramps. If E. coli is suspected, patients should be directed to the nearest emergency room for evaluation, health officials advise.

“E. coli is a very serious disease that can be life threatening,” said Dr. Gunn. “Parents should be particularly vigilant if their children have bloody diarrhea, and any child with bloody diarrhea should be taken immediately to a hospital emergency room.”

Escherichia coli (abbreviated as E. coli) are a large and diverse group of bacteria. Although most strains of E. coli are harmless, some can make you sick, causing diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia, and other illnesses.

E. coli is spread most often through the consumption of contaminated food, the consumption of unpasteurized (raw) milk, the consumption of water that has not been disinfected, contact with cattle, or contact with the feces of infected people.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services is leading the investigation. Staff from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are in Missouri to assist state and local health officials.

Missouri health officials are urging people with risk of exposure to E. coli to:

– WASH YOUR HANDS thoroughly after using the bathroom or changing diapers and before preparing or eating food.

– COOK meats thoroughly. Ground beef and meat that has been needle-tenderized should be cooked to a temperature of at least 160°F/70°C.

– PREVENT cross contamination in food preparation areas by thoroughly washing hands, counters, cutting boards, and utensils after they touch raw meat.