Background: An outbreak of Escherichia coli O157:H7 was identified in Oregon through an increase in Shiga toxin-producing E. coli cases with an indistinguishable, novel pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) subtyping pattern.
Methods: We defined confirmed cases as persons from whom E. coli O157:H7 with the outbreak PFGE pattern was cultured during July-August 2011, and presumptive cases as persons having a household relationship with a case testing positive for E. coli O157:H7 and coincident diarrheal illness. We conducted an investigation that included structured hypothesis-generating interviews, a matched case-control study, and environmental and traceback investigations.
Results: We identified 15 cases. Six cases were hospitalized, including 4 with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). Two cases with HUS died. Illness was significantly associated with strawberry consumption from roadside stands or farmers' markets (matched odds ratio, 19.6; 95% confidence interval, 2.9-∞). A single farm was identified as the source of contaminated strawberries. Ten of 111 (9%) initial environmental samples from farm A were positive for E. coli O157:H7. All samples testing positive for E. coli O157:H7 contained deer feces, and 5 tested farm fields had ≥ 1 sample positive with the outbreak PFGE pattern.
Conclusions: The investigation identified fresh strawberries as a novel vehicle for E. coli O157:H7 infection, implicated deer feces as the source of contamination, and highlights problems concerning produce contamination by wildlife and regulatory exemptions for locally grown produce. A comprehensive hypothesis-generating questionnaire enabled rapid identification of the implicated product. Good agricultural practices are key barriers to wildlife fecal contamination of produce.
Keywords: Escherichia coli O157; Fragaria; STEC; deer; foodborne disease outbreak.