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Health officials investigate Fond du Lac Reservation E. coli cases

At least 22 people on the Fond du Lac Reservation experienced food-borne illness linked with E. coli bacteria, said a spokesperson with the Minnesota Department of Health, Wednesday.

The news was first posted on the band’s website Tuesday, when it indicated there were several cases. The band is cooperating with the state health department’s investigation, which has yet to pinpoint a cause of the contamination.

The strain is believed to be E. coli 0157, commonly associated with ground beef, said the spokesperson. The strain that prompted Applebee’s restaurants to adjust its Minnesota menus earlier this month was E. coli 0111, the spokesperson said as a way of comparison. The popular restaurant chain voluntarily changed a supplier as well as removed its Oriental Chicken Salad and other nuts and leafy vegetables from its Minnesota menus in that instance.

Health department spokesperson Doug Schultz said the 15 people reported ill in that case was “probably the tip of the iceberg.”

“We’re still interviewing and the numbers could change,” Schultz said of the Fond du Lac case.

He explained that Minnesota is a “real-time investigation” state, placing it at the forefront of reactions to food-borne illness. The goal of a real-time investigation is to arrest the spread of illness by pulling potentially contaminated fare, rather than other states, which conduct follow-up investigations.

A state epidemiologist is leading the investigation with help from an environmental health supervisor, as well as University of Minnesota graduate epidemiology students, who are making calls to people who were sick.

Schultz said the Fond du Lac Reservation’s assumption that its spate of outdoor gatherings – including powwows, an elder picnic, outdoor meetings and more recently – contributed to the outbreak was a fair one. Health department research shows that catered events like weddings, parties and potlucks “are notorious for being places where transmission occurs.”

Fond du Lac officials urged residents to purge any leftovers following the start of the investigation.

The first report of illness on the Fond du Lac Reservation was July 17, said Schultz. Hospitals are mandated to report cases of suspected food borne illness, and that is what elicited the current investigation.

Regarding the cause, Schultz said the health department is not giving up.

“We’re always optimistic,” he said. “We’ve got some of the best investigators in the country working on it.”