SEATTLE — Food poisoning caused by contaminated hamburger patties--which so far has stricken about 150 people in the Northwest and on Friday claimed its first victim, a 2-year-old boy--probably had its roots in a slaughterhouse and not in the restaurant chain where the hamburgers were sold, Washington state health officials said.
But most of the bacteria could have been destroyed if the meat had been properly cooked, officials said.
State Health Department coliform tests of two contaminated meat samples taken from Jack in the Box showed levels of fecal matter so high that "it would be more difficult, though not impossible, to kill all the bacteria through normal cooking procedures," officials announced Friday.
"The likely source (of the illnesses) is meat contaminated with feces at the time of slaughter," health officials said. "Other test results available today indicate there (were) no mishandling or refrigeration problems during manufacture or transportation of the beef."
Jack in the Box has reeled from bad publicity following the outbreak because 75% to 80% of the 149 cases in Washington involve customers who were afflicted with bloody diarrhea or severe stomach cramps after dining at the restaurant.
The state's investigation showed no evidence of refrigeration problems at either Vons Cos., which got the beef from slaughterhouses and manufactured and shipped the patties to Jack in the Box, or the restaurant. Proper refrigeration prohibits the bacteria's growth.
Although the restaurant could not be blamed for contaminating the meat, "the undercooking (of the hamburger patties) was a major factor in all these people getting sick," Washington Health Department spokesman Dean Owen said.
Most--if not all--of the bacteria would have been cooked out of the meat had it been prepared at 155 degrees Fahrenheit--a Washington state cooking standard that is higher than those in other states, officials said. In California, the state standard for cooking meat is 145 degrees.
In the wake of the outbreak, Jack in the Box officials have ordered their cooks to grill hamburger patties for 2 minutes and 15 seconds--15 seconds longer than before--to reach a higher temperature.
Jack in the Box President Bob Nugent said he felt betrayed by the sources of the tainted beef.
"Our responsibility as the people who cook and serve hamburgers is to put into place proper procedures and cautions to ensure the safety of our guests," Nugent said from the company's headquarters in San Diego. "We feel very responsible for anyone who eats in our restaurants.
"But we have to rely on our suppliers to hold up their end of the chain of events, to make sure they do the prudent procedures and take the necessary precautions (to process and deliver good meat). Yes, I feel like somebody let us down."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Friday it will help find the source of the contamination.
Unused meat patties from the contaminated lots have been recalled by the restaurant, and samples are being shipped to a government laboratory in Maryland for analysis, said USDA spokeswoman Jacque Lee Knight.
The USDA will also send investigators to the slaughterhouses where the cattle were butchered, Knight said.
Typically, the bacteria in this outbreak--known as E. coli 0157:H7 -- is found in the intestines and feces of cattle and contaminates the meat during the butchering process, she said.
Dr. John Kobayashi, a Washington state epidemiologist, said Friday that it was established that 2-year-old Michael Nole had eaten at a Jack in the Box within a week before being hospitalized with severe abdominal cramps and bloody diarrhea. The youngster died Friday of severe kidney complications, he said.
Three more children remained in intensive care with hemolytic uremic syndrome, a potentially fatal kidney disease resulting from the bacterial infection, Dr. Ellis Avner said at a news conference at Seattle's Children's Hospital.
Meanwhile, San Diego County health officials said that although they have seen similar cases of E. coli infection--and at least one death--they have not linked the episodes to Jack in the Box. Five people in San Diego became ill, and a 6-year-old girl died of the bacterial infection last month.
San Diego County Public Health Officer Dr. Donald Ramras said: "At this point--and our investigation is still continuing--we can find no common linkage among our cases. One (of the victims) never even ate outside the home."
Vons Cos.' consumer affairs department has fielded few calls from concerned customers, said Mary McAboy, spokeswoman for the Arcadia-based company. Notices about the hamburger were sent to the chain's supermarkets and anyone wishing to return meat is welcome to do so, she said.
At a Jack in the Box in Northridge, many customers had heard about the contamination but came anyway, manager Julian Sanchez said. "They know about our procedures. They know about everything. They are not worried," Sanchez said.
Trading in shares of Foodmaker Inc., which owns Jack in the Box, was halted Friday on the New York Stock Exchange after heavy selling pushed the price down $2.50 to $9.50 a share.
Times researcher Conner reported from Seattle; Times staff writer Gorman reported from Los Angeles. Also contributing to this story was staff writer Nancy Rivera Brooks in Los Angeles.