Salmonella outbreak traced to restaurant meat slicer

Published: Jan. 17, 2007 at 7:39 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 23, 2007 at 12:02 AM EST
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January 17, 2007

Valdosta - Faulty equipment at a fast food restaurant was the cause of a salmonella outbreak last fall, according to the Division of Public Health in Lowndes County.

Seventy-two people in Lowndes County were infected with salmonella bacteria between Labor Day Weekend and November 15th, 2006.  43 of those cases were linked to the Arby's Restaurant.

It began in September when eight people checked into South Georgia Medical Center with salmonella poisoning.

"That's more than we usually see in a weekend so that prompted us to start asking questions,"  says Geneine Johnson, District Epidemiologist.

And the cases kept coming in.

"Each week we were receiving more and more cases," says Johnson. 

By November, 72 cases of salmonella were reported, 19 people were hospitalized. So health officials began questioning the patients to find what was behind the outbreak.

"Several possibilities came up. Some restaurants, some grocery stores and also it was thought it was in some private wells," Johnson said. 

Their investigation concluded that at least 43 people infected had eaten at Arby's on North Ashley Street.  So they tested all the equipment including a brand new meat slicer. "Of all the samples that piece of equipment came back positive for salmonella," Johnson said. 

They say they found the bacteria was harboring under a piece of plastic near the slicer blade cover.  The plastic should have been covered with silicone, but it left the manufacturer without it. 

So no matter how hard they cleaned, the bacteria couldn't be removed.  "They took that meat slicer, did a wash, rinse, and sanitize procedure.  Then the slicer was tested again the next day and we were still getting a positive report," says Tad Williams with Environmental Health.

Confirming the outbreak, Gregory Thompson Vice President of Beaver Inc who runs that Arby's says the restaurant worked closely with the health department and quickly removed the slicer and all food that was near it.

Arby's officials say the meat slicers were checked company wide as an extra precaution and they are investigating what could be the source of the salmonella.

The slicer manufacturer is asking all customers to inspect their blade covers to be sure it's properly sealed with silicone.

Officials from the Division of Public Health say the Arby's has always met health code standards.  They say it's safe to eat there.