Workers at the south side Sizzler, where a major E. coli outbreak started, ground raw beef a foot away from an area used to prepare foods served on the restaurant's salad bar, a health official said Friday.
That particular spot in the Sizzler kitchen was the "most likely location" where the E. coli bacteria found its path from "cow to customer," infecting more than 60 people and leading to the death of a 3-year-old girl, city Health Commissioner Seth Foldy said.
Health officials found the E. coli O157:H7 bacteria in a sample of raw ground meat taken from the restaurant, 789 W. Layton Ave., early in their investigation last month. Since then, they have tried to discover how the bacteria was transferred to the watermelon and other salad bar items consumed by the customers who became sick.
Foldy stopped short Friday of definitively identifying the grinding area as the spot of the cross-contamination, but he cited no other examples in his news conference.
"All we know is the opportunity existed, and it probably occurred," Foldy said.
He said the restaurant received its meat, tri-tip sirloin, in large vacuum-sealed packages. Workers then cut the 10- to 15-pound slabs into steaks and ground the trimmings into meat used for tacos on the buffet.
The grinder was about one foot away from the kitchen area where other workers prepared the foods for the salad bar and buffet line, Foldy said.
He said restaurants, particularly those that process raw meat and prepare numerous salad and buffet items, should separate that work in different rooms or at least distant areas of the same kitchen. E. coli is routinely found in raw meat, and preventing it from spreading to uncooked foods should be a priority for all restaurants, he said.
"They should make sure that meat preparation is truly separated by unbreakable barriers," Foldy said.
He said the Health Department would examine the practices of restaurants similar to Sizzler to ensure their kitchen practices prevent E. coli from spreading into uncooked foods.
"It just shouldn't happen," said Nancy Donley, president of the national food safety advocacy group Safe Tables Our Priority.
Donley was astounded to hear about the practice health officials found in the Sizzler kitchen.
"They should know better than having foods that are to be consumed raw next to preparation areas for raw meat and poultry," Donley said. "They should flat-out know better."
Foldy said the meat grinding and salad preparations were done at different times, but the proximity presented numerous ways for the E. coli bacteria to be transferred from the tainted meat to the other foods. Workers touching the different foods with the bacteria on their hands, using a piece of equipment that hadn't been sanitized or the splatter of juice from the meat could have caused the illness-causing contamination, he said.
"That's something somebody could say is a minor mistake," Donley said. "It's something we talk about all the time, how it's just a minor mistake and you wind up with somebody dead."
In this case, it was Brianna Kriefall, a 3-year-old who died of complications related to hemolytic uremic syndrome, a disease caused by E. coli infection. She died July 28, less than a week after health officials discovered the E. coli outbreak.
Bill Marler, a Seattle-based attorney who is representing a half-dozen of the E. coli victims, said separating raw meats from other foods should be a basic practice in restaurant operations. The importance of that was shown in a 1993 E. coli outbreak, also linked to Sizzler restaurants and the spread of E. coli from raw meat to other foods.
"It is completely shocking to see a health department report now that reads almost identical to a health department report in 1993," Marler said. "It's the same thing seven years apart, and it just should not have happened."
The 1993 outbreak in Oregon and Seattle resulted in 39 confirmed E. coli cases, with 15 people hospitalized. There were no deaths.
Coincidentally, the same meat packager, Excel Corp., based in Wichita, Kan., supplied meat to the Sizzler restaurants involved in that outbreak and the Sizzler on W. Layton Ave. A spokesman for Excel confirmed Thursday that the meat packer had supplied the tainted meat to the south side restaurant.
Ron Irwin, a spokesman for the restaurant owners, Lee Eschenbach and Steve Boysa, said they would continue to cooperate with the Health Department investigation into the cause of the E. coli outbreak. The Health Department report issued Friday raises a possibility, but does not state a definitive cause, Irwin said.
He would not comment as to whether the Sizzler workers ground raw beef in the area described by Foldy.
"What we really want to reiterate here is we're going to do everything we can to work with investigators to help determine what really happened," Irwin said.
Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Aug. 26, 2000.