Contaminated food has led to problems


E. coli hit a reminder of earlier outbreak

The recent detection of a dangerous food-borne bacteria in St. Clair County comes near the 10th anniversary of an outbreak that made E. coli a household word.

Six diagnosed and suspected E. coli infections -- one of them life-threatening -- have been tentatively linked to Habanero's Mexican Restaurant, located in the food court of St. Clair Square shopping mall in Fairview Heights.

The restaurant's first county Health Department inspection in May resulted in a finding that "potentially hazardous food" did not meet temperature and storage standards. Inspectors also reported that some surfaces and utensils were not clean enough.

In 1993, the outbreaks of E. coli-caused illnesses occurred in several states, including Illinois. They were tied to undercooked hamburgers at some Jack-in-the-Box restaurants. Some 700 cases of illness and four children's deaths resulted from the infections.

Widespread public information about the proper cooking of meat emerged from the E. coli scare of 1993. But a victims' advocacy group claims that 10 years later, inadequate health inspections of all types of food remains the problem surrounding a variety of food-borne illnesses.

"People shouldn't have to be getting contaminated meat in the first place," said Karen Taylor-Mitchell, executive director of Safe Tables Our Priority.

The organization was founded by victims and their survivors after the 1993 E. coli outbreak. Its recent 10-years-after study and conclusions are available on its Web site, www.stop-usa.org.

One of St. Clair County's recent cases, Patty Timko, 20, of Fairview Heights, ate at Habanero's on Aug. 24 and was hospitalized Sept. 1. She remains in critical condition because the illness has attacked her kidneys and central nervous system.

Infections from E. coli and other food-borne bacteria and parasites can strike hours, days or weeks after a person eats contaminated food, Taylor-Mitchell said.

One in three Americans become ill each year from some type of food contamination, according to the advocacy group. About 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die. Most are isolated cases, not outbreaks.

Many people who become ill from E. coli and other food contaminants experience only mild flu symptoms. Children, seniors and pregnant women are at highest risk for serious symptoms or death.

Serious infections also can cause strokes or leave survivors with diabetes, heart disease or high blood pressure.

No new cases of suspected E. coli had emerged Tuesday, said Greg James, director of environmental programs at the St. Clair County Health Department in Belleville.

Health officials do not yet know how many of the six ill people who ate at Habanero's have the E. coli bacteria, he said.

"We're still waiting on laboratory samples. We expect to have some lab results by the end of the week," James said.

Meat is not the only source of E. coli, Taylor-Mitchell said. It is found in the intestines of healthy cattle and sheep. Vegetables can be contaminated while still on the farm if they come in contact with animal feces.

"You can't cook lettuce," she said.

After one restaurant-related E. coli outbreak in Milwaukee, authorities discovered that juices from contaminated steak tips had splashed on watermelon served at the salad bar, Taylor-Mitchell said.

Cooking and refrigerating at proper temperatures, washing vegetables well and general kitchen cleanliness is sometimes not enough to kill E. coli and other food contaminants, Taylor-Mitchell said.

"It can help. Cooking reduces risks," she said.

In restaurants, patrons can protect themselves by checking to see whether a working meat thermometer is routinely used in food preparation.

Other illness caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites in food include Salmonella, botulism and hepatitis-A.