On September 7, 2005 Rebecca O’Donnell, Infection Control Nurse at the Albany Medical Center Hospital, informed Marcia Fabiano at the Albany County Health Department (ACHD) that Erika Boehlke was hospitalized at AMCH with a diagnosis of Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS). Preliminary laboratory testing of Erika’s stool had been conducted at St. Peter’s Hospital, and tests were negative for the presence of E. coli O157:H7. Ms. Fabiano arranged for Erika’s specimen to be sent to the New York State Department of Health (NYSDH) Wadsworth Center for more definitive testing.
On September 12 Ms. Fabiano spoke with Erika’s parents, who were at their daughter’s side at the hospital. Mr. and Mrs. Boehlke agreed to be interviewed at the hospital on September 14. Janet Christensen, ACHD staff person, conducted the interview, completing a standardized questionnaire, “E. coli O157:H7 and Shiga-toxin Related Disease Questionnaire.” During the interview, investigators learned that on August 26 Erika had consumed a Topps brand quarter pound beef patty cooked on the grill at home. Most of the patties that came in the package of 12 frozen hamburgers had been eaten. Two uncooked patties, however, were still in the Boehlke’s freezer. Ms. Christensen said the NYSDOH would want to test the leftover meat for E. coli O157:H7, a test that became critically important the next day when the Wadsworth Center bacteriology lab verbally confirmed to the Albany County Health Department that E. coli O157:H7 had been isolated in Erika’s stool specimen. Written confirmation of the positive result would follow on September 21, 2005.
Marcia M. Lenehan, ACHD Environmental Health, retrieved the two frozen patties from the Boehlke house on September 16. She packed them in a cooler with ice and took them directly to the Wadsworth Center laboratory for microbiologic testing. Wadsworth Center’s Dianna Bopp-Schoonmaker called Ms. Lenehan on September 21 to report that E. coli O157:H7 had been cultured in the beef patties collected from the Boehlke freezer. Written confirmation was provided on October 3. Pulsed Field Gel Electrophoresis (PFGE) analysis of the meat isolate and Erika’s isolate showed the two were a genetic match, confirming that the meat was the source of Erika’s infection with E. coli O157:H7. Investigators now turned their attention to trace back of the contaminated meat which was identified as Topps frozen hamburger patties, barcode 74701-00025 with package code 07/19/2006 1st 08207.
Mr. and Mrs. Boehlke were “90% sure” that they had purchased the Topps meat at a Price Chopper grocery store located in Glenmont, New York. They also named a Wal-Mart Store in Glenmont as place where they often shopped for groceries. On September 28, New York Department of Agriculture and Markets staff conducted an on-site visit at each store. Both Price Chopper and Wal-Mart stores carried Topps frozen hamburger patties. Neither store had product with the same barcode in retail display or in storerooms. Investigators conducted further follow-up at Golub Corporation, the distributor for Price Chopper and at the Wal-Mart Distribution Center located in Johnstown, New York. Neither distributor had stock with a code date before August 16, 2006. The meat in question with a code date July 19, 2006 had already left the warehouses.