Since September 30th of this year, state and local health officials had begun to see a spike in the number of reports of Salmonella Enteritidis, including at least five clusters of illnesses centered in the nation’s northeast. The cases, initially treated as distinct outbreaks, were linked through the PulseNet system, a network of laboratories throughout the U.S. that identify the DNA fingerprint of a given pathogen using pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE). What the laboratories found immediately raised concern, as two distinct and rarely reported PFGE patterns of Salmonella were identified in nearly 70 victims – between both of these rare PFGE patterns, an average of only 10 reports are recorded annually in the PulseNet network. By November 21st, health officials had identified Salmonella Enteritidis victims infected with the outbreak strains in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Many more are suspected.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and state and local health agencies in the affected states, the ongoing investigation has led investigators to bean sprouts produced at a New York company, Wonton Foods, Inc. The source was determined, initially, using targeted interviews with as many of the identified victims as possible. What quickly became evident was the high number of victims who reported having consumed sprouts in the days leading up to the onset of symptoms of salmonellosis. Significantly, using a control group as a base for comparison, 78 percent of the victims recalled consuming bean sprouts, compared to only 6 percent of non-victims.
Further assisting investigators, most of the victims linked their consumption of bean sprouts to Asian-style cuisine. Investigators then compiled a list of the implicated restaurants where the bean sprouts had been consumed and looked for a common source. The trace-back investigation soon led investigators to Wonton Foods, Inc., a food service company out of Brooklyn, New York. The CDC noted that bean sprouts from other providers were also used at some of the implicated restaurants, but only Wonton Foods supplied bean sprouts to all restaurants – and Wonton Foods was the only supplier of bean sprouts to at least two of the implicated restaurants.
So far, at least 68 victims have been identified, with over 25% requiring hospitalization. The first victim began to suffer salmonellosis on September 30, 2014, and since then cases have presented regularly, with the most recent reported case suffering illness onset on November 8, 2014. But given the incubation period, and the period of time necessary to identify a case in PulseNet, additional cases are likely to be identified. In addition, the CDC estimates that there are about 30 victims in a given outbreak for every one that is identified by health officials. According to food safety lawyer Ron Simon, who has represented thousands of salmonella victims, “in the end, it is likely that many hundreds of individuals became sick after consuming these bean sprouts,” adding that “in my experience as a food safety lawyer, I have seen a number of multi-state outbreaks of salmonella that have been traced back to sprouts, including alfalfa sprouts, bean sprouts, and clover sprouts. The problem is that sprouts are hard to sanitize and are consumed raw.”
Ron Simon & Associates is currently investigating the origin of this particular lot(s) of bean sprouts, from field to Wonton Foods, Inc., and thereafter to the individual restaurants. “What is important,” says Simon, “is to make sure this product has been removed from the chain of commerce so the threat to public safety is ended, but also to make sure that the victims’ legal rights are protected.” Ron Simon & Associates is currently interviewing potential victims. To speak to a food safety lawyer at Ron Simon & Associates, call 713- 335-4900.