Last week the Brazos County Health Department appropriately announced that the source of the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that sickened 10, putting two young brothers in a Houston hospital with acute kidney failure (HUS), was traced to ground beef from a College Station restaurant. According to those health officials, the Coco Loco restaurant across the street from Texas A&M served the ground beef tacos that caused the illnesses.
By the time of the announcement, one of the two children at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston has been released. His 18-month-old brother had been upgraded to good condition. The adults fortunately had mild illnesses.
Brazos County Health Authority Dr. Eric Wilke said the restaurant is now making changes to improve safety by adding gloves and logs for food temperature. However, he was not sure if the cause was undercooked ground beef or cross contamination. “The two most likely things are either someone touched raw meat and then their hands didn’t get clean and they touched other things and that’s how it transmitted bacteria or some meat was undercooked,” he said.
Don Plitt, director of environmental services for the Brazos Health Department, outlined a number of standards that have been put in place at Coco Loco to avoid another accidental contamination, which include:
- Requiring kitchen staff to wear gloves and maintain a temperature log for cooked meat.
- Health inspectors will increase their annual visits from two to three times per year to four to five.
- Having kitchen staff go through training for proper thawing and handling of meat, which has already been done.
All the above was completely professional, and what I have grown to expect, and respect, from professionals across the country once the source of an outbreak is announced.
But, what could have been a teaching moment for all turned a bit more than odd last Tuesday as local reporters and a Houston TV news crew gathered for an update on the E. coli investigation. Just before Dr. Wilke announced the source of the bacteria had been traced to the Coco Loco restaurant off George Bush Drive in College Station, he did something I have never seen a public health official ever do in 20 years of following foodborne illness outbreaks – he took a bite – just before he began to speak – of the food product – a taco – that sickened 10 of his fellow citizens.
Apparently, the idea was to stress that the outbreak was considered an isolated incident and that the restaurant was now considered a safe place to eat.
However, others did not quite see it the same way. According to local College Station media, by Wednesday, the press conference had been picked up by food industry bloggers as well as statewide and national media, and had spurred a slew of comments from area residents and elsewhere, who felt Wilke’s behavior at the press conference was inappropriate and insulting to the families affected by the E. coli.
By Thursday, Dr. Wilke seemed to have regained his senses. As he said to the local paper: “I would just like to say that I’m sorry if anything I said, or did, yesterday gave the impression to some people that I did not appreciate the gravity of what was going on,” he said. “It was simply an attempt to quell some of the public’s concerns about food safety.” Wilke also said he apologized personally to Greg Melton, the children’s father, and said that Melton was very gracious about it.
Honestly, the Meltons are better than me. If I were Wilke’s boss, I would have fired him on the spot. Public health is the public’s health it is not assuring the sales of tacos from a place that either undercooked meat or cross-contaminated its kitchen.
You can see the video HERE.