Portland food detectives crack E. coli mystery, finger Sally Jackson cheese

The three weeks I spent in France in 2007 with my French-professor wife were memorable on many accounts. Like anywhere else, when I met people and they found out I was involved in food safety, they would tell me their worst barf stories. What was unique was the patriotic-like duty many of the sufferers felt about not reporting any foodborne illness to health-types.

Dr. Mathieu Tourdjman, a French physician who’s currently working at Oregon Public Health in Portland, helped investigate the Sally Jackson cheese mess under the supervision of Bill Keene.

As reported by Lynne Terry of The Oregonian, food is recalled in France but that country does not have a wealth of epidemiologists to investigate outbreaks.

"We don’t have such a developed public health system," said Tourdjman, "and all those epidemiologists know each other and are perfectly happy to cooperate."

To help identify the woman who made raw milk cheese while covered in cow poop, Keene (below, right, photo from The Oregonian) and colleagues at Oregon Public Health offered a unique case study in epidemiology 101.

To this day, no one sickened remembers consuming Sally Jackson cheese. But epidemiologists managed to pinpoint it anyway.

"I can’t recall another outbreak with so many cases and a multi-state outbreak with none of the cases remembering eating the food," said William Keene, senior epidemiologist with Oregon Public Health.

About two weeks ago, Keene found out about two cases of E. coli O157 in Roseburg. Both were women in their early 60s. They didn’t know each other but their demographic similarity sent up red flags, indicating a possible wider outbreak.

Tourdjman quickly caught on. Under Keene’s guidance, he discovered another E. coli case in Vancouver. Turns out that that woman and one of the women in Roseburg had dined one day apart at Clarklewis Restaurant in Southeast Portland.

Not only that, they had both ordered the artisan cheese plate as a starter.

Clarklewis officials could not identify the cheese they ate. But the restaurant’s invoices provided a list of suspects. They included Sally Jackson cheese.

"That was the start, and it turned out to be critical," Keene said. "We assumed that whatever was causing the outbreak was at the restaurant."

Then another Washington connection popped up with a woman who had shopped at Calf & Kid, an artisan cheese store in Seattle.

The shop’s website mentioned Sally Jackson cheese — yet another coincidence.

Then, Keene and Tourdjman discovered that Jackson, an artisan cheesemaker in Oroville near the Canadian border, was threatened with a possible shutdown by Washington state over sanitation concerns.

With Sally Jackson on their radar, the Oregon epidemiologists discovered more cases, including a man in Vermont and one in Seattle.

The Vermont man had visited his uncle in Seattle and eaten at Palace Kitchen, a high-end restaurant that serves Sally Jackson cheese. And the man in Seattle had attended a wedding in Tonasket, Wash., just south of Oroville. The wedding featured local cheese — probably from Sally Jackson.

The scientists had circumstantial evidence. Now, they needed proof. Keene sought Sally Jackson cheese from Oregon restaurants to test for E. coli. Very few had any. Tina’s Restaurant in Dundee had thrown some away. The owner retrieved it by diving into her Dumpster.

In the end, at least two samples of Sally Jackson’s cheese tested positive for E. coli O157:H7, confirming it was the source of the outbreak that sickened eight and involved investigators from four states and the Food and Drug Administration.

Last Friday, less than two weeks after Tourdjman started the investigation, Jackson pulled all her cheese off the market.

Sally Jackson wraps up her cheesecloths after 8 sick with E. coli

Shed no crocodile tears for Sally Jackson and her E. coli O157:H7 contaminated cheese.

The infractions documented by U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspectors last week — after the recall and with inspectors knowingly present – would make anyone wonder why the fancy restaurants and retailers like Whole Foods would buy cheese made with crap. Sally Jackson and staff were seen to:

• Not wash and sanitize hands thoroughly in an adequate hand-washing facility after each absence from the work station and at any time their hands may have become soiled or contaminated. Specifically, the owner was observed throughout the day to altemately perform cheese making functions, such as stirring cheese curd with bare hands and wrapping cheese in grape leaves, with outside activities, such as milking/feeding livestock, without any hand washing being observed.

• Failure to provide handwashing facilities at each location in the plant where needed. Specifically, the approximately 10 inch diameter, shallow bowl handsink in the vestibule is too small for proper use, The sink drain pipe and water supply lines were disconnected.

• Failure to use water which is of adequate sanitary quality in food and on food-contact surfaces. Specifically, the well water supply for the facility is not currently in microbiological compliance. The most recent water analysis was unsatisfactory for total colifom as evidenced by a test report from 10/4/10 observed at the facility. The well has not been retested.

• Failure to clean non-food-contaet surfaces of equipment as frequently as necessary to protect against contamination. Specifically, the wood fixtures, walls and floors were generally soiled and stained with grime/dirt. The floors also showed an accumulation of manure, mud. straw.

• Suitable outer garments are not worn that protect against contamination of food, food contact surfaces, and food packaging materials. Specifically, the owner wore manure-soiled outer clothing during the production of cheese; handling utensils and direct handling of finished product. Owner was observed kneeling in fresh cow manure, while milking a cow outside, then brushed pants with a bare hand and was later observed standing over a bucket of drained curd in the cheese room with the soiled pants coming in to contact with the edge of the bucket.

This could be an exaggeration, but it sounds like Sally Jackson was making cheese while covered in cow shit. Guess it’s all-natural.

Nancy Leson of the Seattle Times reports that Jackson, the Oroville, Washington, cheesemaker whose name has been associated with some of Washington’s finest milk product for 30 years, will shut down her business, after the Food and Drug Administration confirmed that Jackson’s cheese, made from unpasteurized, raw milk, had sickened eight people in four states.

"My argument then was that I have never made anybody sick in 30 years," Jackson said. "That’s what breaks my heart now, that this is how it ended."

That’s a terrible argument, and one I hear routinely. E. coli O157:H7 has been known as a source of human illness for about 29 years, but only in the past 15 years have DNA fingerprinting techniques evolved so that outbreaks are more often linked to a specific food.

The results from the FDA inspection and the sick people also show the fallacies of such an argument.

But why hadn’t anyone noticed? Whole Foods sold – and is now recalling — Sally Jackson cheese from retail outlets in California, Nevada, Washington and Washington, D.C.

“The recalled cheese came from its supplier, Sally Jackson Cheese of Oroville, Wash and was cut and packaged in clear plastic wrap and sold with a Whole Foods Market scale label. Some labels also list Sally Jackson. The affected products are: cow, goat and sheep milk cheese; cow and sheep milk cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves; and goat milk cheese wrapped in grape leaves.”

Where were the Whole Foods safety auditors who approved Sally Jackson raw milk cheese on their shelves? Whole Foods sucks at food safety.