All signs point to the potato salad - or more likely one of the raw ingredients that goes into it - as being the cause of the E.coli outbreak that sickened some 60 people on the Fond du Lac Reservation in July. According to word from Doug Schultz, spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Health, on Wednesday, the investigation has revealed that the illness came from three separate events, the Elders’ Picnic, a private wedding and a three-day conference. All were held on the reservation between the dates of July 11-16, and all were catered by the same entity.
“After interviewing a good percentage of the people involved,” said Schultz, “there are clear indications that the potato salad was the likely vehicle for the illness,” which he added came from the 0157 strain of E.coli - one of the most common forms.
The investigation unveiled, however, that potato salad was only served at two of the three events, which leads investigators to suspect one of the raw products that goes into the salad, such as celery or onions.
“We haven’t yet been able to definitely prove just what that was,” said Schultz. “At first, we thought it was the celery, but we were unable to find any pathogens on the celery we tested.”
He added that doesn’t mean celery wasn’t necessarily the culprit, however, because all of the contaminated celery may have already been consumed by the time the testing took place.
Schultz said the last case of E.coli on the reservation was reported on July 20, which leads him to believe the outbreak is probably over with by now. He confirmed there were no deaths associated with the outbreak.
Though the name of the caterer involved has not been released, Schultz said an investigation revealed the catering operation to be “very well done.”
“There were no red flags,” he said, “no signs of any cross contamination. If we find any contamination occurred in the field, however, we have an issue.”
Schultz said it’s possible that the investigation may not yield any further information at this point, but he said the Department is still looking into the raw products involved in the potato salad.
“It’s possible we may still find that smoking gun,” he admitted.
In the meantime, those who are recovering from the E.coli poisoning are beginning to tell their stories.
Fond du Lac band member Robert Danielson, 62, has always liked to think of himself as a “self-sufficient, able-bodied person who made my own way,” he said.
“I never take medications and I once pulled two of my own teeth, sewed myself up after I cut myself with an ax and toughed out a broken bone,” he related. “I’ve always prided myself on not being a crybaby.”
But early last month, Danielson found himself up against something bigger than he was - E.coli poisoning.
Danielson, an enrolled member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said he’s hopefully on the mend after more than a week of suffering symptoms that left him feeling he was about to die. And while the official report of the Minnesota Department of Health is yet to come in, sources point to one of the public events that took place on the reservation in mid-July, possibly the Elders’ Picnic on July 11 which Danielson and other family members attended that day.
“I was in a hurry that day because I was working,” Danielson related. “I rushed in, said hi, ate and got back out. I confess I wasn’t all there that day because I was in such a hurry. Normally, I am acutely aware of every breath I take.”
As such, Danielson said he can’t recall just exactly what all he ate at the picnic that day. What he now knows, however, is that he was later to become deathly ill. His partner, who was in line right behind him, didn’t get sick. However, his brother from Seattle, who was in line behind her, did.
“That was a Friday,” recalled Danielson. “Life was pretty normal - up until the following Tuesday. Then things went south really quickly.”
As that Tuesday wore on, Danielson said he began to feel somewhat queasy. He began moving slower than usual and he could sense his stomach fluids gurgling around.
“Mentally, I misled myself,” he admitted. “I figured if I just waited it out, in another day or so I’d be better. After I finished work that day, I came home. I’d been waiting all summer for the kind of weather we were having to get things done outside, but all I could do was sit around in front of the TV all evening. I’ve never done that in my whole life.”
He said he didn’t feel like eating, and as the evening wore on his stomach growled more frequently and he began to experience cramps. Around midnight, he said he suddenly had to go to the bathroom - “now!” he related.
Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, he suffered diarrhea and dry heaves almost non-stop.
“I’d have three minutes’ reprieve here, maybe six minutes there, and then the cramps would start building until it hit the excruciating moment when everything started over again,” he said, explaining he could only take small sips of water to try to keep from becoming dehydrated.
At that stage, Danielson was still thinking he might have a case of the flu, as some friends had earlier suggested. But then, his stools turned red.
As he was to learn later, bloody diarrhea is one of the primary symptoms of several strains of E.coli poisoning. That night, however, he thought he might be dying.
“I’ve been through a lot in my life,” Danielson reflected, “but I really began to think this time I wouldn’t make it.”
Because he was only able to get fragments of sleep here and there, he felt mentally and physically exhausted.
“I just felt so darned tired,” he confessed. “I sat out front of the house on Wednesday night, and I learned later that a friend had stopped by and I just sat there and didn’t even speak to him.”
By Thursday morning, Danielson finally agreed to go to the hospital to get checked out.
“As soon as I got there, the doctor asked me if I’d eaten at the Elders’ Picnic,” said Danielson.
He reported the doctors originally thought he might be suffering from salmonella poisoning and kept him there all day, administering intravenous fluids to replace all those he’d lost and later prescribing medication to help relieve his symptoms.
“Then they sent me home, telling me I’d get over it but it would probably be a miserable ride until then,” said Danielson.
And sure enough, by Saturday Danielson said he once again became “acutely aware of every moment that passed,” so he figured he was hopefully on the mend at last.
“I figured I just had to lay low and hang back and I’d be able to undo what I’d done and file that chapter behind me,” said Danielson. “After a few days, I began hitting on all eight cylinders once again. I’m thinking I’m OK now, but I’m not a young guy. I’m considering myself fortunate.”
It wasn’t until nearly a week later that the test results came back as positive for E.coli poisoning. In the meantime, Danielson discovered that he was not alone.
The same Saturday he began to feel he was on the upswing and wasn’t going to die after all, he got a call from the wife of the brother who was at the Elders’ Picnic with him. She had read one of Danielson’s postings on Facebook about his health crisis and began to suspect that “something was going on.”
“I explained to her what I’d been going through,” said Danielson, “and she asked if I’d give my brother a call and tell him about it.”
It turned out that the Sunday night after his brother ate at the Fond du Lac Elders’ Picnic, he’d headed to the Twin Cities to visit his daughter. There, he, too, had fallen sick and ended up in the emergency room.
“There was no way the doctors there could have known he’d been exposed to E.coli,” said Danielson, “so they just told him to take something to deal with his symptoms.”
Up until that time his brother had no idea that others had gotten sick back on the reservation, though he reported he’d been suffering much the same symptoms, as well as hiccups every six seconds from retching so much.
Danielson said his brother now happily reports that he is “out and about” once again, though he agrees that it was “a miserable ordeal” getting back to feeling better.
As it turned out, some 22 others from the reservation have reportedly been sickened with similar symptoms, and the Minnesota Department of Health has launched a full-blown investigation to try to pinpoint the exact source of the E.coli as well as the specific strain.
Danielson and three others have also retained the services of Seattle-based law firm MarlerClark, a firm specializing in food safety, to further investigate the E.coli outbreak.
“Weddings, picnics, potlucks, parties - they’re all notorious breeding grounds for foodborne illness,” said Bill Marler, MarlerClark founding partner. “It doesn’t matter if the food is catered or made in the host’s kitchen - both have an equal chance of making guests sick. ‘Home-cooked’ might sound delicious, but if basic food safety rules, like cooking to the appropriate temperature or avoiding cross contamination, aren’t followed, it’s a recipe for disaster.”
Marler has been on the front lines of food safety for more than two decades. Some of his first related clients stemmed from the E.coli outbreak traced back to the fast food chain Jack in the Box in the early 1990s. More recently, he represented Minnesota-native Stephanie Smith whose dreams of being a dancer were shattered after she ate a hamburger tainted with E.coli.
At the time this issue of the Pine Journal went to press on Wednesday, neither the investigation by the Minnesota Department of Health or MarlerClark was yet fully conclusive.
“Although we have our suspicions as to the source of the E.coli outbreak, I do not want to intrude on the work of the Minnesota Department of Health,” Marler commented on Wednesday. “They are the best in the country at figuring out these things.”
Karen Diver, chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band, confirmed the Band did use a caterer for the events, but without the investigation yet identifying a confirmed source, she added, “I do not feel comfortable naming them.”
Diver further denied rumors that an elder from the reservation who died in a local hospital recently was a victim of E.coli, saying the cause of her death was “unrelated to the recent outbreak.”
As for Danielson, he reported on Wednesday, “It’s a good day!”
Born on the Fond du Lac Reservation in the old Indian hospital that sat next to where the police station now stands, Danielson spent most of his adult life in the Seattle area but returned to the local reservation three years ago “to slow life down and hit retirement mode,” he said.
What he didn’t count on, however, was having to face the type of health crisis he just survived.
“I’ve experienced a lot of things in my day,” he admitted, “but this one was more than words can say. I truly believed that if it continued, I was going to die.”