UPDATE: St. Louis E. coli investigation looks at grocer's salad bars

Tuesday, November 1, 2011 | 11:55 a.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — Investigators for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the state of Missouri trying to determine the source of an E. coli outbreak in St. Louis are looking at salad bars at the region's largest grocery chain, a health official said Tuesday.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services is conducting tests to confirm whether E. coli is responsible for sickening 35 people in St. Louis city and four surrounding counties. So far, 28 of the cases have been confirmed as E. coli, spokeswoman Jacqueline Lapine said.

Victims range in age from 1 to 94. None of the illnesses are considered life-threatening, said John Shelton, a spokesman for the St. Louis County Health Department.

Twenty-six of the suspected cases are out of St. Louis County, and 15 or 16 of those victims have been interviewed by health investigators, Shelton said. The one common denominator among them: Many ate food from salad bars at Schnucks Market stores throughout the region. Shelton said investigators have not yet narrowed the focus to any one food item.

The county had just five cases of E. coli in all of 2010, so the recent number of cases is unusually high, Shelton said.

"We are calling this an outbreak, which is a word we don't throw around loosely," he said.

Schnucks, in a news release, said it has removed some items from its salad bars as a precaution. The company did not specify which items have been removed. A spokeswoman did not return a message seeking additional comment.

Schnucks, which operates 66 stores in the region, said in the release that it is not surprising that its stores were mentioned by patients given that it is the largest grocery store company here and "is the dominant salad bar operator in the St. Louis metropolitan area."

The first E. coli cases in the region were reported last week in the city and in St. Louis, St. Charles and Jefferson counties in Missouri and St. Clair County, Ill.

E. coli is a group of bacteria that can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia. The illness is typically spread through consumption of contaminated food, unpasteurized milk, contaminated water or contact with the feces of infected people.

Young children and the elderly are most at risk of serious illness, which can, in rare instances, be fatal. Health officials encouraged immediate medical attention for anyone with bloody or persistent diarrhea, severe stomach cramps or nausea.

Health officials encourage people to wash hands thoroughly, especially after going to the bathroom; wash produce and cooking equipment; and cook all meats to at least 167 degrees, the level at which germs are killed.

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