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Jack in the Box Hamburger Food Poisoning Terrifies Parents

January 27, 1993

SEATTLE (AP) _ It’s one of the worst nightmares a parent can have.

Deadly bacteria infiltrates hamburger. Undercooking at a popular fast-food chain fails to kill the bacteria. Scores of people get sick and one child dies.

Thousands of others wait with dread through an incubation period as long as a week and a half after consumption to see if they will develop the disease. For most, that period ended only Wednesday.

The illness is called hemolytic uremic syndrome. It was traced to Jack in the Box outlets in Washington, Idaho, Nevada and possibly California. It has produced symptoms ranging from bloody diarrhea and intense abdominal pain to stroke-like bleeding in the brain and irreversible damage to intestines and kidneys.

″To think that something like this can come from hamburger meat,″ said Dean Forbes of Children’s Hospital, where most of the most severely ill youngsters have been treated. ″It’s a nightmare for the parents.″

As many as 40,000 burgers were sold from potentially contaminated shipments, company and health officials said.

As of Wednesday, Forbes said, 18 patients in the hospital were being treated for infection by the coliform bacteria E. coli 0157:H7, including 10 on kidney dialysis and one in critical condition. That is just one strain of the common E. coli bacteria.

Aundrea Dolan, 2 1/2 , regained her health fairly quickly. Her sister, Mary, almost 4, recovered from a stroke and returned home Friday.

En route to a follow-up blood test, Aundrea saw a Jack in the Box and wanted to stop, recalled her father, Joseph M. Dolan of Kent.

″I had to tell her that I don’t think we’ll eat there any more,″ Dolan said. ″She doesn’t understand the cause, and she doesn’t have any qualms about going there, but I can’t ever picture going there again.″

Mary Hancock, a spokeswoman for the restaurant’s corporate parent, Foodmaker Inc. of San Diego, said it was too soon to determine whether there had been any change in eating patterns or volume at Jack in the Box.

It’s the nation’s fifth largest burger chain, but total burger sales are ″not as high a percentage as (at) other fast-food restaurants,″ she said.

Foodmaker president Robert Nugent issued a statement Wednesday announcing a change in suppliers.

In the company’s Western region, which accounts for about two-thirds of its sales of about 750,000 burgers a week, The Vons Cos. of Arcadia, Calif., was replaced with Portion-Trol Foods Inc. of Mansfield, Texas, a 10-year supplier to Jack in the Box in the Central and Midwest regions, and SSI Food Services Inc. of Wilder, Idaho.

Following news of the outbreak on Jan. 17, Jack in the Box replaced about 1,200 to 1,500 40-pound cases of potentially contaminated burgers, including 700 cases in Washington state, Hancock said.

Nugent has said the company was in violation of Washington state cooking regulations because it didn’t know the state last May required that burgers be cooked to an interior temperature of 155 degrees, highest in the nation.

All grills in the company’s outlets have been checked to make sure they are hot enough, the company says.

Those actions should ″reassure the public that Jack in the Box restaurants are absolutely safe,″ Nugent’s statement said.

They came too late, however, for Michael Nole, 2, of Tacoma, who died Friday, and more than 200 people who have fallen ill over the past month.

″Someone’s going to pay for this. It’s just not right,″ said Joseph Nole, the toddler’s grandfather.

The first lawsuits were filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Tacoma on behalf of a 5-year-old boy and a 21-year-old woman. The Nole family also has hired a lawyer, the dead boy’s grandmother said. The suits seek unspecified damages.

E. coli 0157:H7 was found to be a source of food-poisoning only about a decade ago. The worst previous outbreak was in December 1989 and January 1990, when 243 people in Cabool, Mo., apparently got the bacteria from contaminated water and four people died, said Dr. Paul Cieslak, a medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

The agency gets several reports of E. coli outbreaks a year, most limited to a few people and traced to undercooked ground beef, Cieslak said. Other sources include dairy products, poultry and water.

Unlike Washington, most states don’t require the reporting of E. coli 0157:H7 cases.

Fast-food restaurants remain among the safest places to eat, said Joseph Frank, a University of Georgia professor of food science and technology.

″Fast-food restaurants tend to have well thought-out, well-written operating procedures for preparing the foods. The food moves pretty fast through it and you have a good turnover and that makes them pretty safe,″ Frank said.

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