In September of 2001, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Public Health Laboratory received several isolates of E. coli O157:H7 with an indistinguishable pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) pattern, indicating the possibility of a common source. In addition, MDH received word that physicians at the Douglas County Hospital had treated an unusually high number of E. coli O157:H7 cases. MDH began interviewing the cases and learned that several of the ill individuals had eaten at a China Buffet restaurant in Alexandria, Minnesota, before becoming ill.
Douglas County Environmental Health (DCEH) was notified of the potential outbreak, and joined the investigation. MDH and DCEH investigators inspected China Buffet on September 6, 2001 while the restaurant was closed for cleaning. All ready-to-eat foods, foods that were potentially cross-contaminated, and raw chicken and beef were thrown out. In all, MDH sanitarians identified twelve critical and 13 non-critical violations at the restaurant. The restaurant reopened on September 7.
DCEH inspected China Buffet again on September 12 and 14. During the September 14 inspection, DCEH inspectors observed several critical food safety violations, and the restaurant was closed. China Buffet did not open again until September 17.
MDH and DCEH ultimately identified five cases of E. coli O157:H7 associated with consumption of food at the Alexandria China Buffet; all cases were hospitalized. The cases reported becoming ill after eating at China Buffet on August 21 and August 22.
In its outbreak investigation report MDH concluded in part, “Due to the opportunity for cross-contamination, multiple contaminated dishes could have resulted from a single contaminated product. A single product used in multiple dishes could not be ruled out.”
Marler Clark represented a Minnesota woman who was hospitalized for months with HUS in litigation against China Buffet.