State health officials said searches of a national database that catalogs all known genetic fingerprints of E. coli 0157:H7 found the White Water and beef samples were the only ones in the nation to have identical DNA.
"What this means to us is that this beef could have been the way the organism that caused the outbreak got into Georgia," said Dr. Paul Blake, epidemiologist for the Georgia Division of Public Health, "although we'll never know for sure."
That finding comes after the owner of Bauer Meat Co., the Ocala, Fla., packing plant that supplied the beef to the schools, committed suicide, according to the Alachua County (Fla.) Sheriff's Department. Frank Sigmund Bauer, 60, shot himself once in the head Aug. 13 near his home, the sheriff's office said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture revoked the plant's mark of inspection Aug.12. USDA spokesman Andy Solomon said the plant has been under investigation, although he would not say for how long. Because the investigation is ongoing, he would not comment on its focus.
In May, Bauer Meat recalled 37,500 pounds of meat patties supplied to Georgia, North Carolina and overseas military facilities.
The recall was prompted by a Danielsville boy who became ill after saying he ate a hamburger, which had been supplied by Bauer, in the cafeteria at Danielsville Elementary School. Although public health workers were unable to test a stool sample from the boy for E. coli infection, the USDA and the Georgia Division of Public Health both found E. coli 0157:H7 in meat samples taken from the school.
The company, which has been operating for 50 years, had no comment Wednesday. Although the match between the beef and several cases from the White Water outbreak in Cobb County strengthens the possibility of a link, it does not confirm a cause and effect, said Blake. It's possible that children infected by Bauer beef later spread E. coli to other children who eventually contaminated a kiddie pool at White Water in June.
At least two dozen children were sickened by the outbreak and one child, McCall Akin, 2, of Kennesaw, died after experiencing kidney failure and other complications related to the bacteria's infection.
Blake noted, however, that Bauer beef may not be the only source of this particular strain of E. coli.
Often, E. coli infections are not reported or genetically mapped, he said. "What we have on record is merely the tip of the iceberg," he said.
And that means the E. coli 0157:H7 could have entered the state through some other means and have absolutely no relationship to the beef.
"The beef could have been the source, but that's about all we could say. There's still too many unknowns," he said. "It would even be hard to say what the probability is that the outbreak was caused by the beef."
Deedie Dowdle, White Water's spokeswoman, said the tests were a relief because it does confirm that the water park was not the source of infection.
"This goes far in proving we're not the original source," she said. "We've had a lot of emotional concerns that somehow it could have come from our water or something, but this should confirm the fact that that is clearly not the case."
But Seattle lawyer William Marler, who represents four families suing the park because children were infected there, said the new finding "certainly does not absolve White Water from the illnesses these children got while swimming at its park."