CHICAGO -- Illinois state health authorities are continuing to track a large-scale outbreak of foodborne illness here that has sickened at least 39 people since July 1, and most recently led local retailer Dominick's Finer Foods to recall meat implicated in the outbreak.
The recall by Dominick's followed an Illinois Department of Public Health finding that a frozen sample of ground beef -- believed to have been purchased July 12 at a local Glenview Dominick's -- tested positive for E. coli 0157:H7, a virulent type of the organism, according to Illinois Department of Health spokesman Tom Schafer. The DNA from the specific bacteria strain found in that meat sample genetically matched the bacteria that had sickened a young boy, who lived in the house where the sample had been found.
A Dominick's official said the chain took issue with Cook County's official health inquiry related to that sample. They noted that the household member interviewed by the county named two stores where the ground meat could have been bought, and that the leftover ground beef that provided the sample had been repackaged by a member of the household.
"The county did not ask any questions about how the meat was repackaged," the official told SN. "There was no Dominick's store label on the meat that was tested."
Dominick's, owned by Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway, said the company had voluntarily recalled ground beef with a sell-by date of July 12 from the Glenview store purely as a precautionary measure, and also cut ties with American Foods Group, Green Bay, Wis., the Glenview store's primary ground beef supplier.
However, according to Schafer, there was every indication the source of the ground beef was the Glenview Dominick's.
"We don't take the step of identifying the source of meat without sufficient evidence, and we had plenty of evidence in this case," Schafer told SN.
Schafer said that county health officials had interviewed the sick child's mother "without prompting." According to Schafer, the woman reported she shopped at Dominick's for her main groceries, where she bought 75% lean ground beef on sale on either July 8 or July 12. She had bought only fruit salad at the second-named store and had check stubs from Dominick's for both days, he said.
Although Dominick's said they sold only 73% lean, according to Schafer, authorities felt this was "fairly close." Schafer said that a review of the store's sales advertisements revealed Dominick's had offered 73% lean on sale on July 12.
Schafer confirmed that a DNA testing of the child's stool sample containing E. coli 0157:H7 was a genetic fingerprint of the DNA in the Dominick's-purchased meat sample. He added that, of the 39 people felled by the outbreak thus far, at least 12 of the cases, including this child, carried the identical E. coli 0157:H7 DNA pattern.
"The key component is the linked 12 cases, because of the likelihood of the same source. The other cases may or may not be related. That's why we're continuing to do DNA testing of all samples," said Schafer.
"We recalled the ground beef because we were concerned about the health and safety of our customers," the Dominick's official said. "If there's any reason to suspect one of the suppliers, it's better for us to take the necessary steps and be responsive to our customer needs."