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Tri-tip served at fundraiser is likely culprit in E. coli outbreak

Tri-tip served at a fundraiser in Forest Ranch appears to be the culprit in an outbreak of sickness caused by E. coli bacteria.

Butte County health officials said Friday they hope to learn why the tri-tip was contaminated. Butte County Health Officer Dr. Mark Lundberg said so far as he knows, 18 people have become sick including four who were hospitalized. He said more cases of illness may be discovered.

Of the four people who were hospitalized, two remain in the hospital, including a 6-year-old girl who was airlifted to UC Davis Medical Center, Lundberg said. He didn't have information on the girl's condition.

The health officer called the incident the worst outbreak of food-borne illness he'd seen in the 12 years he has worked for Butte County.

On Sept. 6, several hundred people attended a fundraiser in Forest Ranch to benefit the community's volunteer fire department. This week, health officials learned that some people got cramps and severe diarrhea after eating food at the event.

It was found the illness was caused by a dangerous strain of bacteria known as E. coli 0157.

Lundberg and other county health officials held a news conference Friday to report the latest on the outbreak.

A memo distributed to reporters stated in part, "Some people, especially children under 5 and the elderly, can become very sick from E. coli 0157. The infection damages their red blood cells and their kidneys. This only happens to about one out of 50 people, but it is very serious. Without hospital care, they can die."

E. coli bacteria is found in the intestines of animals. It can turn up in cow manure and can be on the udders of cows. Sometimes it has gotten into water and spread from cattle operations to vegetable farms. People who eat contaminated food may get sick, and they can spread the bacteria in their feces.

How did the tri-tip served in Forest Ranch get contaminated? Lundberg said there are many possibilities. E. coli bacteria could have been in the meat when it was purchased. Or it could have come off of cutting boards the meat was placed on. Or it could have been on the hands of people who prepared and served the tri-tip.

There are good ways to protect yourself against being poisoned by E. coli bacteria, Lundberg said. Use a meat thermometer and make sure the meat is cooked long enough to reach temperatures that will kill any bacteria it might contain. For meat like tri-tip, it should get to 145 degrees, he said. Hamburger should reach 165 degrees.

Food that is to be eaten raw, like fruit and vegetables, should be rinsed thoroughly.

It's also essential to wash your hands thoroughly after going to the bathroom and before preparing food.

The health officials said groups that plan to put on events where food will be served should contact the Public Health Department to obtain free information on proper methods of preparing meals.

The department's phone numbers are 891-2732 and 538-7581.

Lundberg said events like the one in Forest Ranch have many benefits and ought to be encouraged. But it's essential, he said, that organizers follow correct guidelines for preparing food safely.

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