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Food contamination by E. coli bacteria kills three children in Western Washington in January and February 1993.

HistoryLink.org Essay 5687 : Printer-Friendly Format

In January and February 1993, food contamination by E. coli bacteria kills three children in Western Washington. More than 450 persons fall ill after consuming undercooked hamburger or being exposed to infected persons. The source of the contamination will be traced to Jack in the Box Restaurants and to its meat supplier, Von's in California. .

The Vulnerable Young

Between January 3 and January 17, 1993, 50 people, most of them children and most of them in Western Washington, reported to hospitals complaining of severe stomach cramps and bloody diarrhea. Some children had to be placed on dialysis after their kidneys failed. On January 19 alone, 38 people reported the symptoms. Ultimately, three children died, a two-year-old girl from Snohomish County, a two-year-old boy from Tacoma, and a 16-month-old boy from Bellingham. The children died of heart failure brought on by kidney disease. Forty percent of those infected were under the age of six and two thirds were younger than 15.

Many of the sick children were treated at Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center, which was swamped with more than 45 patients along with a seasonal rush of respiratory cases. Children who survive E. coli illness often develop kidney problems in 10 to 15 years. Some survivors lost organs such as colons and gall bladders which were damaged.

Origin of the Outbreak

The bacterium, officially known as Escherichia coli O157:H7 (Escherichia [Genus] coli [Species])  was traced to undercooked hamburger served at Jack in the Box Restaurants. Full cooking destroys the bacterium. Jack in the Box recalled all meat on January 18, as soon as the outbreak was announced. Some victims did not consume the meat, but were infected at day care centers by others who had. More than 450 cases were reported in Washington and 100 more elsewhere in the West. Investigation by health officials found that Jack in the Box had received the meat from a November 19, 1992, production run at Von's in California. One child in San Diego died in December after eating hamburger from a fast food restaurant there. Jack in the Box offered to pay the medical costs of all the victims.

By the end of March 1993, reports of the illness had stopped. Previously, an E. coli outbreak in Walla Walla County in 1986 had killed two people.

"Bacterial Sickness Hits Dozens of Children," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 18, 1993, p. B-1; Robert L. Jamieson and Eric Houston, "Lawsuits Filed Over Burgers," Ibid., January 26, 1993, p. A-1; James L. Eng, "Death Linked to Tainted Burger Food Poisoning," The Los Angeles Times, January 24, 1993, p. 5; Lee Moriwaki and Kay Kasumoto, "Burger Chair Offers to Pay Medical Bills," The Seattle Times, February 1, 1993, p. A-1; Warren King, "State's E. Coli Epidemic Heads Toward 500 Cases," Ibid., February 9, 1993, p. B-1; David Brown, "From Herd to Hamburgers," The Washington Post, February 8, 1993, p. A-3.

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Electron micrograph of Escherichia coli
Courtesy National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

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