In late August of 2003, staff in the Communicable Disease (CD) section at the St. Clair County Health Department (SCCHD) received a report that four Illinois residents who had recently traveled to the St. Clair area were experiencing bloody diarrhea and had gone to emergency rooms in their respective hometowns for treatment. Laboratory tests were being conducted to determine the pathogen causing illness, and results were pending. CD staff notified the SCCHD Environmental Health section.
On Tuesday, September 2, SCCHD was notified that E. coli O157:H7 had been isolated from at least one of the four people’s stool specimens. The four had shared only two meals: one at a wedding reception and one at Habaneros Mexican Restaurant located in the St. Clair Square Mall. As no one else who had attended the wedding was reporting symptoms, they suspected the food at Habaneros was the source of their illness.
At the same time, the SCCHD began receiving other reports of diarrheal illness in patients seen by local physicians. Preliminary interviews of ill persons revealed that all had eaten at Habaneros prior to the onset of diarrhea.
SCCHD conducted a foodborne outbreak investigation and found that of 64 persons, including seven employees, who had eaten at Habaneros between August 15, 2003 and September 5, 2003, thirty (47%) reported having diarrheal symptoms; ten sought medical care. An extensive food consumption history was obtained from each person interviewed, but no specific food-item was statistically associated with illness.
Five individuals were laboratory-confirmed with E. coli O157:H7. All five ate at Habaneros on either August 23 or August 24. Pulsed field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) analysis of the five isolates obtained from culture-confirmed patients revealed that all five had an indistinguishable PFGE pattern, indicating that they were infected with the same strain of E. coli O157:H7.
On September 2, upon hearing that there was a laboratory-confirmed case of E. coli O157:H7 with a possible connection to Habaneros restaurant, the SCCHD EH staff conducted an on-site environmental investigation. A second on-site inspection occurred on September 4. EH staff noted improper cooling procedures for cooked ground beef on both occasions. On September 5, the restaurant agreed to voluntarily cease operations while the E. coli outbreak investigation was underway.
On September 18, IDPH received a report that E. coli O157:H7 had been cultured from a sample of pico de gallo obtained from Habaneros. In a final report, the public health agencies investigating the outbreak noted that pico de gallo could not be confirmed as the source of the outbreak, but that the outbreak had originated at Habaneros.
Marler Clark represented all five confirmed cases in claims against Habaneros.