I read with some amusement that Arby’s bought Wendy’s today for $2.34 billion. According to various press reports, Dave Thomas’ daughter Pam Thomas Farber said the family was devastated by the news. "It’s a very sad day for Wendy’s, and our family. We just didn’t think this would be the outcome," said Farber. If her father were alive to hear news of the buyout, "he would not be amused," she said.

No one from Wendy’s called and asked how "devastated" the victims of its past E. coli outbreaks are.  Frankly, they are not that "amused."  The last time I was involved in an E. coli case with Wendy’s was 2000 – just before Dave died. Now I am involved in another one – just before Wendy’s died. Here are the bare facts on the two outbreaks:

2006 – Utah

In early August 2006, public health officials in Weber County, Utah, became aware of several people who attended a teachers’ conference luncheon that had contracted E. coli O121:H19. On August 2, 2006, the Weber-Morgan Health Department (WMHD) issued a News Release indicating that three people had contracted E. coli O121:H19, and that two of the individuals had developed HUS. WMHD stated that the evidence indicated that all three people contracted E. coli from the same source sometime during June 27-30 at a restaurant in the Ogden, Utah area. By August 7, WMHD officials had revised the number of outbreak victims to four, including three who had developed HUS.

WMHD further concluded that the source of the contamination was possibly iceberg lettuce prepared at the Wendy’s Restaurant at 2500 North 400 East in North Ogden, Utah. One of the patients with confirmed HUS who had not attended the teacher’s conference had eaten cheeseburgers with iceberg lettuce at the Wendy’s Restaurant during the outbreak period. The second confirmed HUS case was an attendee of the teachers’ conference, and a third case of HUS was determined to be secondary transmission from an infected person at the conference. Eventually, WMHD determined that at least 69 people had become ill in the outbreak. Of the sixty-nine people who reportedly became ill, four remained hospitalized and were in serious condition.

2000 – Oregon

On August 22, 2000, Marion County Health investigators contacted the Oregon Health Department to report that a number of County residents were suffering from E. coli O157:H7. Three days later Wendy’s International, Inc voluntarily closed its Salem restaurant.

The health department investigation revealed that cross contamination from contaminated ground beef was the outbreak source. The role of cross-contamination as the source of other major E. coli outbreaks has been well documented. Independent events of cross-contamination from beef within the restaurant kitchens, where meats and multiple salad bar items were prepared, were the most likely cause of four separate chain-restaurant associated outbreaks in Washington and Oregon in August, 1993. See Lisa A. Jackson, M.D., et al., "Where’s the Beef?" Archives of Internal Medicine, Volume 160, August 14/28 2000, 2380-2385.

Marion County Inspectors found several food-handling problems that likely resulted in cross-contamination, causing E. coli bacteria in the meat to contaminate other foods. These included:

1. Food-preparation staff soaked lettuce in the first compartment of a three-compartment sink that was used to rinse bloody-meat-juice-covered pans in which raw hamburger patties had been held, without cleaning and sanitizing the sink between uses.

2. Food-preparation staff used a cleaning and sanitizing "wet towel, dry towel" process, whereby a shelf above the grill that held raw hamburger patties was wiped clean first with a dry towel, then with a sanitized-soaked wet towel. The dry, bloody-meat-juice-soaked towel was used for hand wiping in both the grill area and the sandwich assembly area (where raw products are placed on cooked burgers)

3. Poor hand washing was observed.

So, with an extra $2,340,000,000 sitting around you would think that Wendy’s could come up with the money to take care of two customers who are at risk of kidney failure after eating Wendy’s products? Perhaps, they will now offer Arby’s coupons?