Officials have confirmed an outbreak of salmonella poisoning at a high-security federal prison in northeastern Pennsylvania that sickened more than 300 inmates and staff who ate tainted chicken last month.
Lamine N'diaye, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Prisons northeast regional office, said the kitchen at the U.S. Penitentiary-Canaan in Waymart had been closed down as a precaution for cleaning, but reopened Wednesday after a bureau inspector deemed it safe.
N'diaye told The Associated Press that "tainted chicken" served in fajitas on June 25 has been confirmed as the cause of the outbreak at the prison 135 miles north of Philadelphia. But N'diaye and Russell Reuthe, the prison's human resources manager, said officials can't comment on who supplied the chicken, where and how in the supply chain it became tainted. Those details are being gathered for an "after action" report on the incident, they said.
Reuthe confirmed that the food wasn't prepared by an outside vendor, which is why the kitchen was closed when inmates and staff fell ill soon after eating the chicken.
"It's all wholesale food cooked on site, prepared on site," Reuthe said. The kitchen was closed "just in case."
Salmonellosis is an infection caused by salmonella bacteria, which can contaminate food or water. Generally, those who get it will suffer from diarrhea, fever, dehydration and cramps for up to three days _ but the illness can spread in those with impaired immune systems, children or the elderly.
Salmonellosis is not often fatal, but it can be if it spreads to someone's bloodstream or intestines. It can also cause a specific form of arthritis.
The AP first learned of the outbreak from attorneys at the Seattle-based law firm of Marler Clark, which specializes in foodborne illness litigation. Attorneys Bill Marler and Claire Mitchell said the families of more than a half dozen inmates called them Thursday to report the outbreak.
"I would say between six to 10 phone calls from people who have been reporting that there are a couple of hundred people sick in this prison, and guards have been sick as well," Mitchell told the AP. Mitchell said the firm was still investigating those claims and that it was too early to determine if any lawsuits will be filed or how ill any of the inmates had become.
Reuthe said four inmates were treated for dehydration at a hospital emergency room and immediately returned to the prison, and none were admitted.
USP-Canaan houses about 1,400 male offenders in the high-security prison, with a satellite camp for roughly 125 minimum-security inmates, Reuthe said. Meals for the high-security prison were prepared at the minimum-security camp while the prison's kitchen was shut down.
Marler Clark attorneys have represented hundreds of people sickened by foodborne illnesses in Pennsylvania in recent years, including salmonella-tainted tomatoes served on made-to-order sandwiches at Sheetz convenience stores in 2004. More than 400 customers in Pennsylvania and eight other states were sickened in that outbreak.
At least 660 people developed hepatitis A in 2003 when they ate tainted green onions at a Chi-Chi's restaurant in Beaver County, about 20 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. At the time, it was the largest single-source hepatitis A outbreak in U.S. history, and three people died. The law firm successfully resolved 78 claims in the Chi-Chi's outbreak, including a $6.25 million settlement for a man who required a liver transplant.
The Chi-Chi's case was unusual because health officials also encouraged about 9,000 people who at the restaurant during the outbreak to get immune globulin shots to ward off hepatitis A, and more than half of them split an $800,000 settlement to compensate them for that inconvenience.
Federal investigators determined the Sheetz tomatoes were contaminated at a West Virginia supplier where they were chopped and repackaged for sale to the convenience store chain. The green onions were tainted at the farms in Mexico where human waste was allowed to flow downhill into the fields where they were grown.
Christine Cronkright, a Pennsylvania Department of Health spokeswoman, said the investigation into the cause of contaminated chicken at the federal prison was continuing. She said no new illnesses were reported since July 2 and that 90 percent of those who got sick reported eating the chicken fajitas.
"We did provide assistance to the facility by taking stool specimens and food testing," Cronkright said, adding that all food stored at the prison when the outbreak was first reported was thrown away as a precaution.
Reuthe said the bureau of prisons generally works with the local health agency, in this case the state health department, unless "other issues arise" in which case other agencies can become involved. That hasn't happened in this case, he said.