In the summer of 2002 I received a phone call one morning from a fellow who had been up all night with diarrhea and vomiting. He had learned too that several others who had attended a wedding the prior weekend were sick as well. Thus started our investigation into the Brook-Lea Country Club Salmonella outbreak. The fellow called me because between trips to the bathroom he caught this show on TV in the middle of the night:
In late June of 2002, residents of Monroe County began to fall ill with Salmonella infections. As their illnesses were confirmed by laboratory testing, hospitals and doctors began reporting the illnesses to the Monroe County Health Department. By June 22, the total number of confirmed cases had reached 17. According to the health department, the Salmonella cases were linked to multiple events at the Brook-Lea Country Club (“Brook-Lea”) between June 1 and June 17.
In response to the outbreak, the Monroe County Health Department inspected the Brook-Lea kitchen and reviewed its food-handling procedures. In addition, the kitchen was closed and disinfected by a commercial company. While the kitchen remained closed, the Health Department stated that it would review the possibility of allowing the club to have limited outside catering.
By June 24, the number of cases of salmonellosis linked to the Brook-Lea country club had risen from 17 to 53. These were just the confirmed cases. There were dozens of other cases still waiting culture confirmation. The Health Department had by this point in its investigation obtained stool and blood samples from about 50 kitchen-related staff. The club kitchen also remained closed.
Two days later, on June 26, the results of tests done on kitchen-staff stool samples showed that eight of the about 50 kitchen staff had Salmonella infections. According to the health department, it was unknown whether the staff represented the likely source of the outbreak, or whether they “might just be victims”. An additional food worker at Brook-Lea was later found to also be infected, bringing the total number of sick employees to nine.
Over the next three weeks the number of Salmonella cases linked to Brook-Lea soared from 57 to well over 100. At least 95 of the cases were both culture-confirmed and linked epidemiologically to the consumption of food at Brook-Lea between June 1 and June 18. It was also determined that the Salmonella associated with the outbreak was Salmonella enteriditis, a virulent strain often associated with contaminated eggs.
In early July, Brook-Lea management admitted that none of its employee had attended a six-hour voluntary course on safe food handling. The Health Department first offered the food safety course in 1997 and it was available to all foodservice operators and their employees. It was only after the Salmonella outbreak that about 30 Brook-Lea employees received training in safe food-handling practices.
Proving that lightening can strike in the same place twice, on July 30, there was a second, smaller outbreak of Salmonella illnesses at Brook-Lea, yielding six more cases. Four of the cases were Brook-Lea employees. Overall, there were now 106 confirmed cases of Salmonella food poisoning in people residing in Monroe County and the surrounding area. All of these cases were linked to the Brook-Lea Country Club.
One of the more amusing parts of the case was the belief that the Salmonella outbreak was a criminal plot of some sort on behalf of the victims. Why else would the defense lawyer ask why the health department records said “Suspected FBI?” (Hint – ( Suspected Food Borne Illness)
This is another it what will be a long – too long – series of outbreak investigations where we have represented consumers in what I hope will be a cautionary tale, and a learning experience, for manufacturers of food.