In mid-October of 2001, the Benton-Franklin Health District (BFHD) and the Washington Department of Health (WDOH) began investigating an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak among children who attended Finley Elementary School in Finley, Washington. BFHD and WDOH conducted epidemiologic and environmental investigations into the outbreak.
Nine confirmed and 2 probable cases were identified during the epidemiologic investigation. All were students at Finley Elementary School. One additional case, a two-year-old child hospitalized at Children’s Hospital in Seattle who was being treated for hemolytic uremic syndrome secondary to E. coli O157:H7 infection, was reported to BFHD in late October. The child’s sibling attended Finley Elementary School, and she had played with other children who attended the school before becoming ill. BFHD and WDOH considered the child a suspect secondary case.
Both the environmental and epidemiologic investigations centered on a taco meal that was served for school lunch at Finley Elementary School. Leftover taco meat from the meal tested negative for E. coli O157:H7, although investigators noted “golf ball”sized chunks of leftover ground beef with pink, undercooked centers. The WDOH final outbreak report concludes in part:
As no other common school activity was identified other than eating at the school cafeteria, it is reasonable to conclude that a meal served at the school was the likely source of illness. Cattle are the known reservoir of E. coli O157:H7. Thus, it is likely that consuming the ground beef served in the tacos was the vehicle.
A jury agreed with the BFHD and WDOH investigators’ conclusion, and in 2001 Marler Clark won a record $4.6 million judgment on behalf of 11 children who became ill with E. coli O157:H7 infections during the outbreak. Most of the award went to the two-year-old secondary case who developed HUS. The jury award was upheld on appeal, and the state Supreme Court declined to review that decision.
Marler Clark also reached an out-of-court settlement with Northern States Beef, the company that provided the raw meat to the school district.