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E. COLI UPDATE: Schnucks Salad Bars Focus of Outbreak, But Testing Negative

Health officials confirm that Schnucks salad bars are a focus of their E. coli investigation, but so far, food samples have tested negative for the bacteria.

As the St. Louis County Department of Health investigates an E. coli outbreak, health officials are looking into reports that some of the infected patients purchased and ate food from  stores prior to falling ill.

The number of probable and confirmed outbreak-related cases in Missouri is 26, with 20 of those being in St. Louis County, the St. Louis County Health Department stated in a news release Tuesday. The cases began being reported last week as people began falling ill.

"One of the focuses that we are looking into at this time is salad bars in Schnucks stores," Health Department Spokesperson John Shelton tells Patch Tuesday. "Many of those we have interviewed said they have purchased and eaten items from Schnucks salad bars. We have not narrowed it down to a single item on a salad bar."

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) has been leading a team of local, federal, and state public health experts investigating the E. coli outbreak, the DHSS stated in a news release.

So far, the Missouri State Public Health Laboratory has tested food samples taken from individuals’ homes and local Schnuck’s salad bars and none of the samples contained E. coli or shiga toxin, its harmful byproduct, the DHSS release stated.

"Thus far, 17 samples have been submitted, and all have come back negative for E. coli. These samples included two strawberries retrieved from sick individuals’ homes," the DHSS stated. "The remaining samples consist of lettuce, strawberries, and Caesar dressing taken from several Schnuck’s stores in the region."   

However, all agencies involved point out the testing continues.

"We're not saying that we have every case in hand or that we've collected every sample," Shelton added. 

"While there is a correlation between Schnucks and this outbreak, the health department has not yet determined what that is. They are following a number of leads at this time,"  spokeswoman Lori Willis stated to Patch in an email Tuesday. "No source has been pinpointed and none of the tests have come back positive for E. coli. " 

Health officials are still in the middle of the investigation and Shelton tells Patch he is not sure when a source may be identified.

"We have not interviewed all the people and tested all the samples. It's a 37-page questionnaire we ask them. This is very time intensive," Shelton said Tuesday.

Schnucks stated in a press release that while has not officially been identified as a source in the on-going investigation, Schnucks has "voluntarily and proactively removed all items in question from salad bars across the company."

The St. Louis County Health Department released the following information Tuesday in its news release.

  •        Of the 26 people infected by E. coli that have been interviewed thus far, 20 reported having eaten anything from a Schnucks. 
  •        17 reported having eaten something from a Schnucks salad bar. 
  •        35 percent of those who have been infected with E. coli did not report eating food from a Schnucks salad bar.

"Although a portion of the investigation has been looking at Schnucks salad bars (and salad bars in general) to see if there is any connection to the outbreak, no such link has been established," the health department's release stated. "Other aspects of the investigation continue to examine other possibilities since 35 percent of those affected did not report having eaten anything from a Schnucks salad bar."

"Food safety inspectors .... have been to several Schnuck’s stores and warehouses, and have not found conditions in those locations that would allow E. coli to contaminate food held there for sale or distribution," the DHSS release stated. "The investigators have therefore enlisted the assistance of the Federal Food and Drug Administration as they move further up the distribution chain, which could include distributors and/or producers located outside of Missouri."

Shelton previously told Patch that six people were hospitalized and treated at in Creve Coeur. He stated the source of the E. coli is food-borne.

Last week, Willis told Patch that when  got news of the outbreak from the health department, it began taking precautionary steps by pulling some items from its salad bar. 

"To date, no tests taken from Schnucks stores have come back positive for E. coli and no original source has been pinpointed, but Schnucks Food Safety is taking every possible precaution," Schnucks stated in the news release Monday. "Health officials report that Schnucks stores were mentioned during some of the recent patient food histories spanning 7 – 10 days. This is not surprising in that Schnucks, by sheer number of stores (66), is the dominant salad bar operator in the St. Louis metropolitan area." 

Schnucks' release also states that as more cases of E. coli are reported across the country and outside of Schnucks' area of operation, store officials feel additional research is needed. 

"It’s important that health officials are able to target an item or items in order to track this outbreak back to a source," the release stated.

Schnucks is deferring customers with questions about the E. coli outbreak to the St. Louis County Health Department at 314-615-1600.

Shelton is advising concerned consumers to toss out any produce they may be concerned about.

"When it doubt, throw it out. It's not worth taking the risk if you think it might make you sick," Shelton said. He also advises people to thoroughly wash all produce before eating it.

Public health officials urge anyone experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms, including severe stomach cramps, diarrhea or nausea, to seek medical attention, the DHSS stated.

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