Fingerprints Key to E. coli Outbreaks

SEATTLE, WA -- Health officials in Ottawa County, Michigan, believe that contaminated ground beef could be the source of an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that has infected at least eight members of a single family. Other E. coli cases have been reported in neighboring counties, and tests to determine whether the cases are related are pending.

The USDA uses Pulsed Field Gel Electrophoresis (PFGE) testing when E. coli O157:H7 and other deadly pathogens are found in ground beef. The USDA routinely samples ground beef collected at retail outlets. When E. coli O157:H7 is found in such samples, a recall usually results. By comparing PFGE test results, sometimes referred to as “genetic fingerprints,” epidemiologists, like at the CDC, are able to link illnesses with recalled meat.

“A perfect example of how important DNA fingerprints are comes from the ConAgra ground beef E. coli O157:H7 outbreak last summer,” said William Marler, an attorney with Seattle law firm Marler Clark. “During the outbreak, an Ohio woman died, and health officials were able to link her cause of death to ConAgra’s meat through PFGE testing.” The story of PFGE testing’s role in the case of the Ohio woman, Patricia Pfoutz, was told in the January 21, 2003 Wall Street Journal article, “Use of DNA Fingerprinting Helps Track Tainted Meat.”

Marler continued, “My partners and I have found PFGE testing to be invaluable in tracing foodborne illness outbreaks to their sources. The best advice I could give anyone who thinks they may have a foodborne illness is to make sure their doctor obtains a stool sample so this kind of testing can be done.”


BACKGROUND: Marler Clark has extensive experience representing victims of E. coli illnesses. William Marler represented Brianne Kiner in her $15.6 million E. coli settlement with Jack in the Box in 1993. In 1998, Marler Clark resolved the Odwalla Juice E. coli outbreak for the five families whose children developed HUS and were severely injured after consuming contaminated apple juice for $12 million. The firm also represented eleven schoolchildren who became ill with E. coli infections after eating contaminated tacos for school lunch. The children were awarded $4.6 million by a jury in Eastern Washington. The partners at Marler Clark speak frequently on issues of safe food and have formed OutBreak, Inc., a non-profit business dedicated to training companies on how to avoid foodborne diseases. Marler Clark is also proud to sponsor the informational web sites of and